Posted by Paul Garnett
Director, Technology Policy Group, Microsoft

Today at the World Economic Forum on Africa in Cape Town, Microsoft announced a new pilot project in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Microsoft will work in collaboration with the Tanzania Commission for Science and Technology (COSTECH) and local Internet service provider UhuruOne to provide affordable wireless broadband access to university students and faculty. The pilot will target The University of Dar es Salaam, among others, and we expect that tens of thousands of Tanzanian students and faculty members could take advantage of the integrated solutions available through the project.

Information communications technology (ICT) holds enormous potential for many aspects of development, but is particularly key to education. Use of ICT in schools and universities can increase productivity, enable individualized and peer-to-peer learning and more easily adapt to meet the needs of learners with disabilities. It is particularly critical in emerging markets as it can level the playing field, enabling access to resources, such as international research and books, which would otherwise be difficult for either students or teachers to attain. Broadband Internet is therefore becoming an increasingly crucial component of high quality learning.

However, affordability remains a formidable barrier to broadband access in many parts of the world. Low-cost products and services represent a substantial opportunity. In Africa, broadband remains unaffordable for more than 80 percent of the population. Reducing the cost of broadband access will mean hundreds of millions more Africans will get online.

Microsoft’s new project in Dar es Salaam will showcase one method of addressing ICT access in higher education. Through the pilot, UhuruOne will offer students and faculty low-cost wireless connectivity enabled by TV white spaces, along with Windows 8 device and service packages. TV white spaces, the unused portions of wireless spectrum in the television frequency band, can be used to provide affordable broadband through dynamic spectrum access techniques. This technology has a wide range of potential applications, including better in-building coverage, enhanced hotspot access, increased bandwidth for mobile traffic offload and wide area broadband access.

The new pilot in Tanzania closely follows another white spaces project in Kenya, Mawingu, which launched in February as part of Microsoft’s larger 4Afrika initiative. In the Mawingu pilot, Microsoft is working with the government of Kenya’s Ministry of Information and Communications, Indigo Telecom Ltd. and Adaptrum to deliver low-cost wireless broadband access to rural locations previously lacking even reliable electricity. The pilot uses TV white spaces and solar-powered base stations to deliver broadband and enable new opportunities for commerce, education, healthcare and delivery of government services.

Both of these pilots are unique in their focus on the commercial feasibility of delivering broadband access using white spaces and in fostering the development of new business models.

The innovation seen in the pilots is only the beginning of what is possible through dynamic spectrum access. In current models of spectrum regulation, most of the radio spectrum needed to operate wireless devices is held exclusively by a limited number of private company licensees and government agencies, resulting in a perceived spectrum shortage or “crunch.” A more flexible and modern approach to spectrum management would enable the use of technologies like dynamic spectrum access to make more efficient non-exclusive use of spectrum, increase available bandwidth and reduce its cost, and speed the process of introducing new wireless technologies.

Fortunately, regulators worldwide – in the U.S., the United Kingdom, Canada, Finland, Singapore and beyond – recognize the potential inherent in technologies like dynamic spectrum access. These countries and more have taken the first steps toward enabling use of TV white spaces on a license-exempt basis and unleashing the benefits that widespread access to fast and affordable broadband could bring.