Bringing Low-Cost, Off-the-Grid Broadband Access to Rural Kenya

Posted by Paul Garnett, Director, Technology Policy Group and Louis Otieno, Legal and Corporate Affairs Director, Africa Initiatives, Microsoft.

Despite our increasingly interconnected world, many people are still unable to access the benefits provided by technology. In Kenya, only 2% of Kenyans subscribe to broadband services, as defined by the Communications Commissions Kenya. In many countries in Africa, even fewer are connected. This digital divide is perpetuated by business models, technologies, and regulatory frameworks not suited for delivering low-cost, high-quality broadband access.

To help address this challenge, Microsoft has entered into a Memorandum of Understanding that presents a framework of cooperation with the Kenyan Ministry of Information and Communications and industry partner Indigo, a Kenyan Internet Service Provider (ISP). Through this framework of cooperation and as part of the Microsoft 4Afrika Initiative, we installed and today launched a project that is delivering low-cost, high-speed wireless broadband access to locations previously unserved by even basic electricity.

The technology making the project possible is called dynamic spectrum access, which enables wireless devices to opportunistically tap into unused radio spectrum to establish broadband connections. The project in Kenya utilizes TV white spaces, the unused portions of wireless spectrum in the television frequency band, as well as solar-powered base stations. TV white spaces are particularly well-suited for a range of applications from better in-home networks to rural broadband, to hotspot access and mobile traffic offload to machine-to-machine applications. As television has begun to switch from analog to digital around the world, even more of this spectrum can be used to fulfill those needs.

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While other projects in Africa using TV white spaces have focused on the technical feasibility of the technology, our pilot network is the first deployment designed to increase economic opportunity in communities without access to broadband or electricity. The initial installation near Nanyuki, Kenya brings access to five locations – a healthcare clinic, a primary school, two secondary schools and a community center. The installation in Kalema, Kenya will start with a base station and a connection to the Government of Kenya’s agricultural extension office. In the coming months, the partners will add fourteen additional locations to the network, serving up to 6,000 people.

We also want to ensure that local public institutions are equipped with the technology and knowledge needed to take full advantage of the new access to broadband. Using the latest Windows 8 tablets, Windows 8 applications and Office 365, project partner Indigo is providing computer labs and offering instruction at each school. The agricultural extension office in Kalema will also receive the Office 365 suite of services to help accelerate economic development in this largely agrarian community.  Finally, the project partners are also working with both community leaders and Kenyan content providers to identify the most-needed services and applications for each location and develop Windows 8 applications focused on education and agriculture.

White spaces technology isn’t brand new; however its increased use and applications are. It was originally developed over 10 years ago, in part by Microsoft Research, and has been extensively tested in trials and pilots conducted by Microsoft and others in cooperation with governments including the United States, Canada, Finland, Japan, Korea, Singapore, the United Kingdom to name a few. As the evidence in favor of white spaces and dynamic spectrum access continues to accumulate, regulators are increasingly moving forward with policies that allow individuals, companies and communities to take advantage of these technologies.

We believe our work in Kenya serves as strong proof that true commercial deployment of white spaces technology not only makes good business sense, but could have a key role in delivering on the promise of universal access for Africa – significantly reducing barriers to affordable broadband access faced by almost half the world’s population.

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Microsoft News Center Staff