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African solutions could solve UK rural broadband woes

Tuesday, December 16th 2014 by Phil Wilkinson-Jones

The technology bringing broadband to isolated parts of Africa could help solve connectivity issues in rural Britain, according to an expert in spectrum policy.

Andrew Stirling, a technology consultant whose clients include Microsoft, said the exploitation of unused or under-used radio frequencies had already transformed broadband access in parts of Africa and could help in the UK.

“You see this in Africa with the ‘4Afrika’ programme which Microsoft has got, bringing broadband to places that don’t even have mains power," he told Cable.co.uk, "it's staggering."

Microsoft has launched a pilot project at the University of Limpopo in South Africa and has had success with similar pilots in Kenya, Tanzania and Ghana. The project looks at creating broadband networks using 'white space', the parts of the radio frequency spectrum which are not being fully utilised for existing telecommunications systems.

“Google is doing similar things in Africa but the Microsoft project has been going very well and we can see similar applicability to rural areas here,” added Mr Stirling.

A large amount of the spectrum used by telecoms providers in the UK isn’t used to its full potential, said Mr Stirling.

“The business models and the technology they’re using don’t incentivise them to use it. For example, if it’s a remote corner of Scotland there might not be enough people living there to be worth putting a mast," he said.

“If it’s a technical issue, it might be that they have to keep a certain distance between reuse of a piece of spectrum and that means they have to leave a gap, and in the gap the spectrum is not used.”

Mr Stirling said Ofcom had been looking into dynamic spectrum access, which enables a broadband company to use whichever part of the frequency spectrum is available at any given moment.

"When that’s in place, that gives new freedoms and potential to deploy new wireless technology which will really help connectivity in cities,” he said.

“Instead of auctioning spectrum which normally involves clearing, you spot spaces that are not used fully, which is quite a lot of the spectrum, and you work out a way of sharing that.

“The dynamic [part] means that there can be opportunistic use of the spectrum with licence-exempt wireless access points.

“Dynamic spectrum access technology enables safe sharing of the licenced services.”

Last month, Ofcom published data from tests examining what effects the use of white space devices had on wireless microphones used by broadcasters.

As previously reported, the regulator also found that almost 27,000 wi-fi networks across the UK could stop working if plans to sell former Ministry of Defence spectrum bands go ahead.

A statement from Ofcom setting out its position on the use of white space devices is expected in early 2015.

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