Digital Divide and Unlicensed Spectrum

This Thought Leadership contribution is co-written by Prof. H Sama Nwana, Executive Director of the Dynamic Spectrum Alliance and Richard Thanki of the University of Southhampton’s Institute for Complex Systems Simulation.

Google’s launch earlier this month of its first Wi-Fi network in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, is part of a rising tide of efforts to widen access to affordable high-speed Internet, especially in developing countries. It comes on the heels of Facebook’s October announcement of its own initiative to increase Internet access in Africa by using satellites.

These examples from Google and Facebook are just two of the many efforts worldwide to close the digital divide and connect the world’s “next 4 billion” people who don’t have affordable access to high-speed Internet. As these initiatives proliferate, we should remember that true competition is needed to dent the stubborn barriers of affordability and accessibility that often prevent faster connectivity growth, leaving billions out of the new digital economy. And, given the rapid global growth of both Wi-Fi and smartphone usage, we should consider the importance of unlicensed spectrum, particularly unused “TV White Spaces.”

To date, unlicensed technologies using high-frequency spectrum have been limited to short-range communications. However, access to the unused, lower-frequency TV White Spaces would unlock a range of potential applications for connecting “the next 4 billion.” The extension of Wi-Fi to TV bands would provide an alternative but complementary ecosystem to 3GPP (2G/3G/4G/5G) for bridging the digital divide, stimulating the competition needed for success.

A track record of innovative solutions

In the early 1990s, the United States’ Federal Communications Commission (FCC) allowed the Industrial, Scientific and Medical (ISM) spectrum bands to be used for communications on an unlicensed basis. Since then, these unlicensed bands encouraged remarkable collaboration and competition, between large established companies and small start-ups, leading to the emergence of a multiplicity of wireless protocols, such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and ZigBee.

These technologies have had a revolutionary impact, including nearly ubiquitous Wi-Fi, sensory and automation networks in homes and industry and medical implants with wireless communications. The lack of cumbersome and bureaucratic licensing requirements enables innovators to bring their products to market without the need to secure permission, and the range of applications of unlicensed wireless technology continues to grow.

Future potential

However, access to the unused TV White Spaces (TVWS) has the potential to extend the unlicensed revolution to long-range uses. TVWS regulations enable technologies that can play a critical role in extending Internet access to the billions still unconnected in the world’s rural areas. Already rural users are being connected in a large number of countries, including the United States, Kenya, and the Philippines. Another key use of TVWS-enabled technology will be in the area of wide-area sensor networks designed to monitor floods, pollution and the poaching of endangered animals over vast areas. In cities, we will see the use of TVWS to control traffic, monitor infrastructure and read utility meters. In homes, Wi-Fi enabled with TVWS will eliminate connectivity blackspots.

In the many TVWS-enabled broadband initiatives taking place around the world, smartphones are already being connected over TVWS, with Wi-Fi as an intermediary. However, new revisions of Wi-Fi (in the 802.11af standard) will allow smartphones direct access to this technology. There are likely to be many implications. First, a user’s home Wi-Fi network will no longer stop abruptly at their front door, instead extending into their local area. Second, the provision of Wi-Fi over large areas such as university campuses and even whole cities is likely to become easier to deploy and more ubiquitous. Smartphones that can function in remote forests and natural reserves become a distinct possibility. The increase in mobile data usage on mobile network operators’ (MNOs’) networks may be slowed by the advent of unlicensed TVWS-enabled networks (and higher frequencies WiFi in 2.4 and 5GHz), providing MNOs a chance to defer infrastructure investment. In time, MNOs are likely to be a large-scale user of TVWS, adding the technology to their GSM- and Wi-Fi-based networks of today – hence WiFi being an alternative but complementary ecosystem to 3GPP.