The Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), has developed draft guidelines for the use of Television White Spaces (TVWS) for rural broadband connectivity in Nigeria.
The apex regulatory body in charge of Nigeria’s communications sector said it developed the guidelines in conjunction with the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), the country’s broadcast regulator, and it is currently consulting with industry stakeholders to present the final guidelines.
According to the draft document made available to the public, NCC defines Television Whitespaces as the “unassigned spectrum between broadcast television channels in the 470 to 694 MHz portion of the UHF frequency band possibly utilised to provide Internet access to the underserved and unserved regions of the country, mostly in rural service areas at broadband speeds”.
“The guidelines provide a framework to enable license-exempt transmitters to operate in the UHF band, which are allocated on a primary basis to the broadcast television service, on frequencies and at locations where the spectrum is either not assigned to licensed services or not in use at particular times while protecting primary users from receiving harmful interference,” the document reads in part.
TVWS utilise vacant, unused or interleaved frequencies of inactive channels (known as buffer channels) to provide high-speed broadband internet to homes. In the past, buffer channels were placed between active TV channels to protect broadcasts from interference. Recent developments in technology and research have proven that the unused spectrum of buffer channels can be used to provide broadband internet access while operating harmoniously with surrounding TV channels.
Since the famous pilot test of TVWS technologies in Cambridge in 2011 by a consortium comprising of Microsoft, BBC, Nokia, Samsung and six other allies, TVWS is growing to become a notable emerging technology in the quest to bridge the digital divide and connect the unconnected especially in remote communities around the world.
In Africa, the technology has undergone some pilot projects, especially in South Africa where more than ten schools connect to broadband internet service at a browsing internet speed of 4 Mbps using inactive UHF spectrum meant for TV broadcasting service. The emerging technology has also undergone tests in Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria and Tanzania.
In August 2019, the U.S. Trade and Development Agency awarded a grant to South Africa’s Wireless Access Providers Association (WAPA) to deploy three TVWS network builds and develop a business plan. These were to help ISPs and their investors understand and take advantage of commercial opportunities with TVWS. Adaptrum led the project in collaboration with a consortium of U.S and South African partners, including Microsoft, International Data Corporation and Project Isizwe.
The success of the TVWS test pilots in Africa has been attributed to its capability to travel up to 10 kilometres in radius, which is great for the continent’s vast remote, off-the-grid villages. Major technological advancements in TVWS has been focused on its application in rural communities, with Africa hosting a large area of the target market.
“If TVWS could be exploited to serve the rural areas because of its ability to travel far and reduce cost in communication, then there would be a tremendous increase on the individuals using the internet in Africa,” noted Ifeoluwa Opawoye, et al in a research paper published in the 34th volume of the Nigerian Journal of Technology.
However, TVWS has some challenges and limitations like many emerging technologies. Ifeoluwa Opawoye et al note that secondary use of the spectrum poses some technical problems, and require rigorous technical procedures to identify, and carefully monitor using sensitive white space Cognitive Radio (CR).
Another challenge of the use of TVWS is the lack of regulatory regimes that provide clarity and support the application of the technology in developing nations, where the primary market exists.
In the light of providing a regulatory framework for the use of TVWS and White Space Devices (WSDs), the Nigerian Communications Commission in March 2019 held the first Stakeholders Consultative Forum on Television White Space to begin the conversation on harnessing TVWS to expand rural connectivity in Nigeria.
Insights gained from the consultative forum informed NCC’s decision to develop a draft guideline which will form the basis for a regulatory framework on the use of TCWS in the country. The Commission said it is open to feedback and recommendations from experts, and will hold an industry consultation session before finalising the regulatory framework.
While South Africa is the first African country to pass a regulation on the use of TVWS in 2018, the act is not yet widespread across the continent, as the technology is still undergoing pilot tests in most African countries.
Joseph Ibeh is a Mandela Washington Fellow and Senior Analyst at Space in Africa. His experience spans industry research and market analysis with a focus on African-grown NewSpace companies, commercial space industry, national space programmes and real-life application of space science for sustainable development in Africa.