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South Africa has been catapulted into the league of countries conducting cutting-edge trials on the use of unused parts of the television (TV) frequency spectrum to provide low-cost broadband internet.

The local trial, to ascertain the feasibility of the technology, is being funded by Google. It was launched in Cape Town yesterday, in partnership with the Tertiary Education and Research Network (Tenet) of SA and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

Television white spaces (TVWS) are unused spaces in the television spectrum that can be used for broadband. They offer the potential to improve internet connectivity. Only a few countries globally are exploring the technology.

It is available for licence-exempt users in the US and the UK is developing a model regulatory framework based on a licence-exempt or “managed access” TVWS spectrum.

The advantage of white spaces is that low-frequency signals can travel longer distances. This ability makes the technology suitable to provide low-cost connectivity to rural communities with poor telecoms infrastructure, according to Google.

Luke Mckend, Google South Africa’s country manager, said the internet giant looked forward to opening discussions with policymakers around a regulatory framework to support the wider use of TVWS to deliver wireless broadband internet across the country.

Tenet is installing and managing the information technology and providing connectivity backhaul support.

The service will be broadcast from three base stations at Stellenbosch University’s Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences in Tygerberg, Cape Town. Ten schools in the area will receive wireless broadband modems to test the technology.

The test kicked off at the Elswood Secondary School in Elsies River.

The trial is intended to show that broadband can be offered over white spaces without interfering with licensed spectrum holders. The network uses Google’s spectrum database to prevent interference.

The CSIR’s Meraka Institute will monitor spectrum usage, confirm the results, and regularly report the outcomes of the trials to the Independent Communications Authority of SA and local broadcasters.

Arno Hart, the project manager at non-profit organisation Tenet, said the trial was challenging because TV white spaces were an uncharted area and the supporting technologies were not readily available. “This is a very new area. There aren’t off-the-shelf products. We had to be very selective about the technologies.”

The equipment being used was developed by a US firm and is so advanced that it is not yet available for commercial use.

He said trials in other areas used experimental technologies that were at an even earlier stage of development.