Corporate

Microsoft Kenya Wi-Fi plan setback after new licence rule

Students browse the Internet provided by Mawingu Networks Limited in a joint initiative with Microsoft to connect rural residents in Nanyuki to the service. PHOTO | FILE
Students browse the Internet provided by Mawingu Networks Limited in a joint initiative with Microsoft to connect rural residents in Nanyuki to the service. PHOTO | FILE  

The Communications Authority of Kenya (CA) has given broadcast signal distributors the powers to assign idle television spectrum to Internet service providers in a move that could affect Microsoft’s bid to install Wi-Fi in rural Kenya.

Technically known as White Spaces, the un-used broadcast frequencies are seen as a key resource for bridging the last mile in Internet access in Kenya. In 2013, Microsoft began a pilot project dubbed Mawingu that provided cheap Wi-Fi in Laikipia by tapping White Spaces.

Then, the company had been granted a trial licence directly by the authority. The communications regulator now says companies wishing to use White Spaces for Internet delivery will now have to go through broadcast signal distributors.

“What the board approved is that the owners of the spectrum can partner with the likes of Microsoft under a kind of framework that we have given them.

“Those companies that want to implement data on the TV white spaces can ride on their licences,” said CA director-general Francis Wangusi.

The regulatory change, Mr Wangusi said, would guard against the interference of broadcasting programmes by devices operating within the White Spaces.

Internet service providers may be required to pay fees to the benefit of companies such as Signet and the Pan Africa Network Group.
Microsoft had not commented on this story by the time of going to press.

There are concerns that this kind of regulatory environment may be to the detriment of cheap service provision in the country.

 “My take on this is that it should be offered without requiring you to get a nod from broadcasters. This would spur innovation,” said Ephraim Mureu of Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology who has researched TV White Spaces in Kenya.

Microsoft has been tapping this technology to bring in more people into the Internet bracket in Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa. It is not the only company doing so. Google has also carried out pilots in South Africa.

In the UK, the regulator has opted for a licence-exempt regime to guide the use of TV White Spaces. Under this sort of regime, databases are maintained to keep track of the unused spectrum as well as the White Space devices in operation in order to avoid interference.

A 2014 report on the impact of Project Mawingu argued that this is the sort of regime that ought to be implemented in Kenya.

The trial licences issued to signal distributors will last at least a year as the CA says it is still working out a regulatory policy for the White Space technology.