Google and Microsoft aim to use ‘white space’ in Africa to deliver Internet access

Image representing Microsoft as depicted in Cr...

Image via CrunchBase

Microsoft will soon be piloting an Internet connectivity ‘white spaces’ project in rural South Africa, following on from similar projects in Kenya and Tanzania earlier this year. The trial will take place in Limpopo, and is similar to the pilot in Kenya as it targets very rural areas which may not even have access to the electricity grid. The Internet giant continues to eye its next generation of customers and aims to deliver broadband at reduced cost to the rural masses in Africa. ‘White spaces’ is a term for utilising unused frequencies for television broadcasters to deliver Internet services. Google also launched a project earlier this year attempting to bring fast speed Internet access to South Africa, using high altitude balloons or ‘blimps’ capable of transmitting signals across thousands of kilometres. The Google project is focusing on developing a wireless broadband network in Cape Town, using masts to transmit signals to local schools in Stellenbosch.

The Microsoft project will use the TV ‘white spaces’ and solar-based power stations to deliver low-cost broadband to 5 schools in South Africa’s Limpopo province. Microsoft isn’t simply providing Web access and says the schools will be kitted out with Windows-based tablets and projectors, while teachers will get laptops and training. Since access to power can be an issue in parts of South Africa, there will also be solar panels for charging devices where mains electricity is not available. So alongside the philanthropic leanings, Microsoft is clearly looking to engage the next wave of potential customers.

The Limpopo trial, which aims to connect local schools, is similar to Microsoft’s Kenyan pilot, in that it targets very rural areas that may not even be on the electricity grid (the Tanzanian pilot was more urban, dealing with high-density, low-income areas). The Limpopo pilot involves solar-powered base stations and – Microsoft being Microsoft – each school also gets a range of Windows tablets for pupils, laptops and training for teachers, projectors and teaching materials.

The ‘white spaces’ technology isn’t solely for emerging markets, and it could have potential right across the world. Google’s TV white space database was approved in the US just last month, while it was recently reported that both Microsoft and Google are considering launching the project in the UK in the future.

Large Internet players like Facebook, Microsoft and Google often talk about the next billion people to access the Internet, and how the majority of them will come from the developing world and will access it through mobile devices. Recent reports highlighted the fact that Facebook and Google are persuading wireless carriers to offer cheap or free internet access to customers for stripped-down access to the web giants’ sites. Considering that Facebook currently only has access to about 5% of the African continent’s population, there is a massive opportunity here for the social networking giant,

There is also likely to be an influx of cheap, sub-100 dollar smartphones into Africa over the coming years and Google wants to be at the forefront of this through the production of cheap Nexus phones and tablets. Google’s gives away its open-sourced software on Android for free so as to increase the reach of its information-gathering system, and Africa is seen as a massive opportunity. Google wishes to break into African and Asian markets by reducing the cost of smartphones and is doing this to exert is monopoly position in these, in Internet terms, virgin territories.

So, it is easy to understand why the likes of Google and Microsoft are looking into innovative ways of bring high speed broadband to the masses in Africa. The Internet giants’ continued growth depends on reaching new people in the developing world, who will be the next generation of its customers. Their intentions clearly aren’t completely philanthropic, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t enormously beneficial to developing economies whose people are accessing the Internet for the first time. In the end, for both Google and Microsoft this all comes down to wanting to spread connectivity, and therefore those companies’ addressable markets. This connectivity will also have major benefits for the economies of the countries concerned, so everyone should do well out of it.

Nairobi continues its charge to become Africa’s technology innovation hub

English: Beautiful City of Nairobi

English: Beautiful City of Nairobi (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The future of computing and internet access is widely believed to be mobile. At the recent Mobile Engage in the UK, Facebook discussed ‘the next billion people’, citing the fact that 4.5 billion have yet to access the internet, and the majority of new internet users are likely to do so through a mobile device. Africa, experiencing explosive population growth, a burgeoning consumer class, and the exponential uptake of mobile devices, is likely to be where much of new mobile internet users come from. Indeed, the GSMA believe that mobile connections in sub- Saharan Africa, home to some 900m people, will hit half a billion this year.

Kenya is a relatively stable democracy, has a long history of technological investment, and is likely to be at the forefront of mobile innovation. There are countless examples of why Kenya, and in particular Nairobi, is leading the charge to become the region’s technological innovation centre.

Firstly, and potentially the project with the greatest regional impact, Kenya has recently begun building the much hyped ‘Silicon Savannah’ development in Konza, about 60km south of Nairobi. The project aims to turn Konza into the most modern city in Africa and is widely expected to be a game-changer for Kenya’s $36bn economy.. The initial phase will be completed in 2017, and when finally completed in 2030, Konza City is expected to create some 200,000 jobs as well as countless schools and universities. Konza – economically and politically a “new city” in Africa – may well act as a blueprint for further developments on the continent.

Kenya was the birthplace of M-PESA, the hugely successful mobile banking service, which has opened up financial services to millions of ‘unbanked’ people in Africa. Africa is now a hotbed of mobile money activity, and the continent counts 15 of the top 20 countries by mobile money usage.

This month, Nairobi became the third African city, after Johannesburg and Casablanca, to become home to an IBM innovation centre. The GSMA, the governing body and set of standards for the mobile operators, also recently choose Nairobi for its first African office.

A recent Microsoft initiative, Microsoft 4Afrika, is investing in a strategic cooperation with business incubator iHub and m:lab in East Africa to help start-ups build and grow their businesses using Microsoft technologies. The cooperation aims to increase access to software and improve technological innovation in Kenya and the surrounding area. Indeed, both Google and IBM have regional offices there.

There are huge numbers of benefits for companies operating in technology and mobile to set up operations in Africa. Firstly, there is a real lack of red tape preventing innovation, which can often be found in Europe and the US. This means that innovations such as M-PESA can get off the ground quickly and spread to Tanzania and India as it has done. In addition, international companies can learn from efforts in Africa and transfer projects to the West. How much can we learn from the M-PESA mobile banking system to encourage uptake in the west. Indeed, in areas such as NFC and mobile payments, Africa is way ahead of the UK which will need to do a huge amount to gain the trust of the consumer around areas such as data use and security. What can we learn from the recent project in Ivory Coast which saw Orange open up its mobility data to help redraw Abidjan’s bus routes? Although projects using mobile technology are likely to be vastly different across continents, surely there are lessons to be learnt.

So Nairobi may be a leader in Africa, but as the poor outnumber the rich online, particularly through mobile connections, it may become a global leader in mobile technology. Watch this space.

Tech firms see growth potential in Africa

Although the situation varies across the continent. the general trend in Africa is that governments are becoming more stable and willing to partner with international firms to help  grow the economy. In addition, Africa contains some of the world’s fastest growing economies, has a mobile-centric population growing at a rapid pace and is also a centre for mobile innovation. It’s not surprising therefore that some of the world’s largest and most successful technology companies are eyeing up its potential.

Technology giants such as Google, HP and Intel have all recently expanded their presence in Africa. Microsoft also launched its 4Afrika initiative last month — an initiative which should lead to the company spending an additional $75 million in the next three years over what it’s currently investing there.

More people access the internet via their Mobile device than they do via a Desktop or Laptop, which are considered far too expensive. The Microsoft initiative involves getting more people into Mobile, increasing access to SmartPhones, and helping small business get Online. Micrososft will also be launching a new Windows phone, with Apps specifically designed for the African market, called Huawei4Afrika.

However, there are still limitations. Africa lacks a certain level of infrastructure and it can still be very expensive to use the Internet. There is also a lack of skilled labour. To that extent, many of the tech companies investing in the continent are also investing in infrastructure such as increasing access to the internet, adding to the skilled labour force and setting up research and development centres.

Clearly there are challenges ahead, however with a youthful, ambitious population, Africa is potentially set to lead the way in innovation and growth in the Mobile sector.