Even the most developed nations have rural areas with large gaps in  . In South Africa, Stats SA research revealed in its annual General Household Survey that close to 90% of SA households do not have access to the Internet at home at all, meaning that broadband penetration in rural areas is close to zero.

“This is not surprising given the challenges that service providers face in rural areas,” says  Nicole Naidoo, business development manager for ICC  (ICCN) at Axiz.

ICCN is an IP data networking vendor that focuses on intelligent WiFi, TV white space and Ethernet switching.

Laying cable or fibre in remote rural areas is not only extremely difficult but often prohibitive in terms of costs.  However, Naidoo says television white space (TVWS) has the ability to transform the way citizens buy and use wireless Internet across the African continent.

TVWS, as the name suggests, is the unused spectrum channels used for TV broadcasting. It is essentially wireless technology developed by using the very high frequency (VHF) and ultra high frequency (UHF) spectrum.

In the days of old analogue TV sets, one had to manually tune into the channels they wanted. While trying to find the right station, there were empty spaces with lots of ‘snow’ between stations. These are in essence, what white spaces are.TV networks leave these gaps in between channels for the purpose of buffering, but this very space can be harnessed to deliver internet. It is ideal for rural areas, as the signal can travel up to 50 kilometres and over rough terrain to reach these areas that are inaccessible or hard to reach

”The primary advantage this developed wireless technology brings is due to the lower frequencies the technology penetrates foliage and buildings and suchlike,  allowing connectivity in non-line-of-sight environments.  The lower frequency also allows for long-range reach,” says Douglas Pott, CTO of ICCN SA.

In some countries, where there is a wide variety of signal distributors and hundreds of TV stations, white spaces are few and the allocation of these unused channels is an issue, as users can experience interference. However, Africa doesn’t have this problem as there are comparatively few broadcasters and plenty of spectrum, meaning disruptions are rare, adds Naidoo.

According to Pott, 802.11 WiFi (2.4ghz and 5.8ghz) can only operate in line-of-sight environments. “There is also limited spectrum available in the licence-exempt frequencies which lead to a lot of interference in built-up areas.  Currently, 2.4 and 5.8Ghz WiFi is extensively used due to low cost. The more WiFi is used, the more interference is created. In short, TVWS – both VHF (very high frequency) and UHF (ultra high frequency) – overcomes most of the limiting factors inherent in WiFi.”

He adds that because TVWS has a such a long range, it can be used to extend core networks to areas that were previously unreachable.  “It can be used as backhaul capacity to these rural areas where WiFi or LTE can be used to connect the community. It is also relatively inexpensive, and can be quickly deployed.”

TVWS passed final regulations in 2018 and a lot of thought was invested in establishing the framework for the technology, adds Pott.

ICASA regulation dictates, firstly, the spectrum is unlicensed and, secondly, the equipment is approved by ICASA. In addition, only UHF TVWS will be allowed as VHF is reserved for military and police.

ICCN TVWS solutions were originally developed for the US Military. As a result, it’s a carrier-grade solution that delivers 100mb/s full-duplex layer 2 throughput.  Approved by ICASA, it includes patented daily database verification that forms part of ICASA’s licensing requirement, and in this way, the channel usage per geolocation of the install is registered and verified to the ICASA spectrum database, he explains.

Pott says ICCN is currently working on a number of proofs of concept and will be showcasing some of these within the next month.