US tech giant, Microsoft, has started connecting rural residents of Nanyuki in Laikipia County to low-cost wireless Internet, creating new opportunities for businesses, education, healthcare and delivery of government services.
Microsoft is utilising connectivity that is made possible by TV white spaces — the unused portions of wireless spectrum in the frequency bands used for television broadcasting.
The TV white spaces require relatively lesser capital investments and could therefore open a growth opportunity for tech companies providing Internet services in remote areas.
“This technology has the potential to deliver on the promise of universal and affordable high-speed wireless broadband for Africa, and we are proud to see that it has started bearing fruit with the improvement of national examination performance at Gakawa Secondary School,” said Louis Otieno, legal and corporate affairs director for Africa initiatives at Microsoft.
The programme is part of Microsoft’s broader 4Afrika Initiative aimed at improving the continent’s global competitiveness.
Radio signals in the TV bands travel over longer distances and penetrate more obstacles than other types of radio signals and, therefore, require fewer base stations to provide universal coverage.
The project is the first deployment of TV white space technology in Africa targeting communities without access to broadband or electricity.
Microsoft intends to use this pilot project and other similar initiatives to encourage African governments to make the needed legal and regulatory changes that would allow the technology to be deployed throughout the continent.
Mr Otieno added that though Microsoft is a key player in the project, its partners such as Mawingu Networks Ltd are the ones that would come up with the commercialisation model.
The business model would first have to get approval of industry regulator the Communications Authority of Kenya, he said.
Malcom Brew, an engineer at Mawingu, said schools and public libraries are accessing the Mawingu Internet for free while subscribers are charged Sh80 per week for unlimited usage.
The revenue is re-invested in the project to sustain the networks, he added. “We don’t compete with the likes of Safaricom. We are building the network in rural areas where there is no electricity or Internet connectivity,” Mr Brew told the Business Daily.
“We are not investing in a million dollar towers. That means we are not tied to the capex model and as such we are able to offer the Internet at the lowest price possible.
The technology has rolled out 15 Wi-Fi hotspots near Nanyuki, including the Matanya shopping centre, Burguret Dispensary, Male Primary School, Male Secondary School, Gakawa Secondary School and Laikipia District Community Library.
Residents of Matanya previously had to commute the 21km paying Sh100 one-way as bus fare to access Internet at Nanyuki town because there was no cyber café at the trading centre.
“TV white spaces and efficient spectrum management represent a creative, tested and affordable way of extending broadband access to unserved communities,” said Smith Brad, Microsoft general counsel and executive vice president of legal and corporate affairs.