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Intelligent Machines

Microsoft Starts Slashing African Internet Prices with White-Space Networks

A college is the first place in Africa to benefit from a wireless technology that takes advantage of unused radio frequencies – an approach Microsoft is pushing across the continent.

Billions of people around the world do not have access to the Internet.

The cost of getting online for students at Koforidua Polytechnic, a college in Ghana, was cut by 80 percent two weeks ago thanks to a technology that could be used around the world to slash the price of Internet access.

Microsoft worked with Spectra Wireless, a company headquartered in Mauritius, to add broadband connections to the Koforidua Polytechnic campus using equipment that transmits over unused “white spaces” in radio-frequency bands used by TV broadcasters. By encouraging users of that network to try out Microsoft software, the project is also intended to bring the company fresh customers.

White-space radio links provide an alternative to cable or cellular infrastructure. Data signals sent over TV spectrum can cover large distances—up to 13 kilometers, in the case of the equipment used by Spectra. And unlike established technologies such as cellular networks, which require exclusive access to certain frequencies, white-space technology allows multiple services to share the same radio bands by hopping between frequencies (see “The Coming Wireless Revolution”).

Regulators and companies in many countries are investigating white-space networking, but relatively few networks based on the technology have been deployed to date. Microsoft has worked on the technology for over a decade, and over the past two years the company has set up a series of experimental white-space networks across Africa, hoping to help local partners turn them into commercial offerings.

The Koforidua network, the first to get to that point, is the first commercial white-space network in Africa. Over the next year, several more should be deployed, says Frank McCosker, general manager of affordable access and smart financing at Microsoft’s 4Afrika program, which offers technology, funding, and other support to projects designed to boost Africa’s economic activity and Microsoft’s bottom line in the continent.

Spectra Wireless plans to set up more networks in Ghana, as well as in Nigeria, Ivory Coast, and Cameroon, says McCosker. Microsoft is also running trial networks in Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Jamaica, Uruguay, the Philippines, and Bhutan.

At Koforidua Polytechnic, white-space devices have been installed in student dormitories and lecture halls to create high-speed connections back to an Internet service provider roughly 10 kilometers away. Computers and phones connect to these devices over Wi-Fi.

Previously, the college had only a single wired broadband connection that was used by staff, leaving students to pay mobile operators for Internet access. Students would typically spend around 10 Ghanaian cedis (about $3) a day for mobile access, says McCosker. Access to the new network, which is faster and more reliable, costs just two cedis (about 60 cents) a day. The price of connectivity is a major problem in many parts of the world. Some 89 percent of Africans who have access to Internet services cannot afford to pay for them, says McCosker. Even in the U.S., the figure is 19 percent.

Sonia Jorge, executive director of the Alliance for Affordable Internet, says the new network demonstrates one way that developing countries can foster more competitive, affordable markets for Internet access. White-space networks allow companies to start operating without the expense of laying cable or paying for exclusive rights to certain radio frequencies. “Innovative uses of [radio] spectrum can help new and smaller providers to come in, which can really change how affordable services can be,” says Jorge.

Microsoft is only one of several major U.S. Internet companies working to improve broadband access in the developing world. Facebook works with cellular networks through its Internet.org project to reduce access costs, and it is also developing high-altitude, solar-powered drones designed to deliver wireless Internet. Google is working on its own drones, and this year the company plans a large-scale test of stratospheric balloons that will provide high-speed cellular data service in many parts of the Southern Hemisphere (see “Google’s Internet ‘Loon’ Balloons Will Ring the Globe within a Year”).

All those projects blend humanitarian and business motives. Google and Facebook would benefit from large numbers of new users to targets ads to, for example. In the case of Microsoft, students who pay for access to the new Koforidua network will get a free subscription to the company’s Office 365 service, a deal that could help create paying customers later on. And as Spectra Wireless rolls out new white-space networks in other places, McCosker says, Office and other Microsoft services will be bundled into some access packages. 

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