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

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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.

Google’s influence on Mobile Africa

Image representing Google as depicted in Crunc...

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Google has for some time now espoused universal Web access and is currently employing various technologies and holding discussions with regulators from Kenya to South Africa to try and open up access to the mobile Web. Africa contains some of the fastest growing economies in the world and the exponential uptake in mobile devices across the continent and access to the Internet are seen as key in lifting economies up the value chain and helping to eradicate poverty through financial, social and political inclusion. Africa however has suffered from a lack of technological infrastructure and Google is now trying to change this.

The Internet giant is planning on building high speed wireless networks in sub-Saharan Africa using high-altitude balloons which are able to transmit signals across thousands of kilometres. One of its first projects on the continent is a wireless broadband network in Cape Town using several masts in Stellenbosch university to transmit signals to 10 local schools. Google is also currently in discussions with telecoms firms and looking at establishing partnerships to open up Internet access to people in rural areas. There is no clear solution however on a continent with a severe lack of infrastructure and nobody is certain as to how the future will look. What is certain however is that Google wants to be at the forefront of developments.

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. There is also likely to be a flood of cheap smartphones in 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 dominance of the smartphone market is not itself a moneymaker. It gives away its open-sourced software on Android for free so as to increase the reach of its information-gathering system. Making Android free to developers has never been simply about opening up the Mobile Web. It is a way of ensuring that Google’s apps and services are used on smartphones harnessing as much data, information and add revenue as possible. Google now wishes to break into the African and Asian markets by reducing the cost of smartphones. It is doing this to exert is monopoly position in these, in Internet terms, virgin territories.

So, it is easy to understand why Google is helping to bring mobile Internet access to parts of Africa. Google’s continued growth depends on reaching new people in the developing world, who will be the next generation of its customers. Its 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.

The crucial role of Mobile in Africa

Excellent quote from Eve Pennington, Head of Human Experience for SMG and ZenithOptimedia South Africa discussing a recent report entitled ‘Mobile Trends 2020 Africa’

‘Where technology was always the remit of the wealthy, mobile technology has democratised technology. It allows people to connect with one another across geographical borders and facilitates like minded people congregating and sharing experiences.

Mobile acts as the social glue for a society from a personal point of view and from a broader social development standpoint, enabling the biggest social need in countries such as education and health’

South Africa uses text messaging to improve Maternal Health Access

South Africa

South Africa (Photo credit: United Nations Photo)

After years of headlines about Africa’s poverty, its emerging middle class, estimated to be  at about 300 million of the continent’s 1 billion people, is now grabbing attention as a driver of growth and democracy. It is probably the fastest-growing consumer class in the world and a large number of African countries are achieving relative stability in politics and economic policy, allowing the middle class to emerge and prosper.

However, it is till the least developed region in the world and someone described as middle class in Africa is unlikely to have the same financial security as someone from Europe or Asia. The continent was in the headlines for the wrong reasons recently when Save The Children reports revealed that The Democratic Republic of Congo is the world’s toughest place to raise children. Indeed, the 10 bottom-ranked countries were all from sub-Saharan Africa, with one woman in 30 dying from pregnancy-related causes on average and one child in seven dying before his or her fifth birthday. These numbers are too high and innovative solutions are being used to try and combat this.

Of the world’s 6 billion phones it is estimated that 5 billion are in developing countries and this offers a huge opportunity for areas such as mobile healthcare. Data from mobile phones can help in the fight against diseases like malaria through monitoring the movement of a country’s people to enable SMS warnings of hotspot areas and to advise people to wear bed nets in high-risk areas.

In addition, reports from regional powerhouse South Africa have demonstrated how Mobile phone technology can be used to communicate with mothers who often have to cope with extremely challenging conditions. According to UNICEF, 4,300 mothers die in South Africa every year due to complications of pregnancy and childbirth. The recently launched programme is known simply as MAMA, the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action, and is fighting to reduce maternal deaths. An expectant mother may receive 2 – 3 messages a week to offer advice as well as warning signs to look out for and is available in several different languages. The MAMA service demonstrates how mobile technology can assist in healthcare and go some way in radically improving the lives of expectant mothers in the developing world. It has already launched in Bangladesh, and will soon launch in India.