Field Stories

Harnessing TV White Spaces for Learning

Jenny KingWhat constitutes good connectivity?  The answers to this question seem to be related to personal experience: dial-up users think that every other option is great, whereas ADSL users want cheaper, faster upload and download speeds.  So we need to start with the premise that good connectivity is subject to the individual user’s experience, and this is by no measure an observation unique to South Africa.

The areas that need to be urgently addressed are those in rural and under-serviced locations where adequate infrastructure is not available.  Access to information is vitally important in many sectors, but the one that is relevant to this discussion is education.

Looking for ways to overcome the difficulties posed by lack of connectivity infrastructure, we have chosen to become involved in a TV white space trial.  We hope to find answers to address many of the questions about distance, upload and download speeds, latency, bandwidth regulation and the potential impact on other users of the spectrum. The trial went live on the 25th March, 2013, enabling me to share what we have learnt so far, in a fairly generalised way.

Firstly, what is TV white space? Put simply, it is the unused channels in the broadcast TV spectrum. New radio and database technologies allow that spectrum to be used to transmit wireless Internet over distances of up to ten kilometres. As a result, white spaces can be used to deploy broadband access and other mobile data technologies. This technology is important as it has the potential to overcome the problem of distance where there is a lack of infrastructure.

We chose to use schools to trial the TV white space technology, this being partly due to the e-Schools’ Network’s relationship with the schools and partly because we know schools will use all the capacity that is available to them. The schools that we selected currently use connectivity in fairly broad ways. The goal of this trial is not to measure the existing ICT interventions in the schools but rather the faster, more stable connectivity over greater distances.

As the trial is still in its early stages, we have yet to record any impact on teaching methods. However, I expect that Bring Your Own Device (BYOD)-based practices will slowly be utilised during the lessons.  Mobile phones will come into the classroom and their importance cannot be underestimated.  As a result of the increase of devices in classrooms, providers of content will have to rethink the way that the content is delivered.

The success of the South African trial can be attributed to the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) supporting the trial right from the start.  It has been vital to have the right people in place, including a professional project manager, committed financial backer, members of the wireless fraternity, support structures at school level and companies that were prepared to specially build radio devices and software for these devices.  A further crucial stage is the evaluation and reporting that will take place and the co-operation of all the partners – Google, CSIR Meraka, TENET, WAPA, Comsol Wireless Solutions and the e-Schools’ Network – working closely to ensure a successful outcome.

Let me briefly discuss some of the limitations we are facing with this, one of the first African trials. The new hardware and software had to be specially manufactured for the trial as there are currently no off-the-shelf solutions.  Each of these devices had to be programmed to communicate with each other and a fair amount of troubleshooting was needed.  This also means that at this stage there are no pricing models, as the equipment used is not commercially available. In addition, this broadcasting spectrum has yet to be regulated, so the cost of using white spaces in this way is currently unknown and will likely be influenced by license agreements and regulations. However, our trial will provide essential data for ICASA to regulate this bandwidth appropriately.  A further point to mention is that all staff had to be trained on using the software and devices.  Although there was no problem with staff developing new skills, this required a significant investment of time.

In our setup we have three base stations and ten specially chosen schools.  The schools were selected by a rigorous process:  they had to be within a 10km radius of the base station and needed to have technology champions in the school as well as the enthusiastic support of their principals.  Starting with a shortlist of twenty, we whittled these down to ten final trial schools.  The three base stations are located at the Stellenbosch Medical Faculty building at Tygerberg hospital and use different 8MHz channels to avoid interference.

To date the trial has shown that the signal has the capacity to deliver non-line of sight connectivity (although line of sight remains preferable). Speed tests have achieved download speeds of 8Mbps (megabits per second) and upload speeds of 2Mbps. At this point, I am liaising with the schools on a monthly basis to gather feedback from staff, and CSIR Meraka will perform spectrum field measurements.

With connectivity available across the entire country, learning anytime, anywhere could truly become feasible.  It will enable children anywhere in the country to log on whenever they want to and receive lessons on-line, from a centralised hub of teachers.  So no matter where the teacher is, or the child, education can be delivered to them. Lessons could be streamed from one school classroom to another, no matter the location. This means a child in a deep rural school wanting to take a subject that is not offered by the local school can participate and will have every chance of doing as well as a child in the middle of the city.  Equal education for all.

Jenny King is Executive Director of eSchools Network, an NGO servicing the IT needs of   schools in South Africa.

“Harnessing TV White Spaces for Learning” is one of the twelve opinion pieces featured in the eLearning Africa 2013 Report. To read more about the annual publication, please visit: http://elearning-africa.com/media_library_publications_ela_report_2013.php.

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