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Google taps 'white spaces' for broadband in South Africa

The Web giant hopes to prove that unused TV broadcast spectrum can be utilized without interfering with licensed spectrum.

In an effort to show the potential of the unused frequencies in the broadcast TV spectrum, Google has launched a trial program that will tap the so-called white spaces to provide wireless broadband to schools in South Africa.

The Web giant announced today it will use the unused spectrum to provide Internet access to 10 schools in the Cape Town area. The goal of the trial is to show that wireless broadband can be provided over white spaces -- the unused spectrum that sits between broadcast TV channels -- without interfering with licensed spectrum.

"White space has the advantage that low frequency signals can travel longer distances," Fortune Mgwili-Sibanda, the public policy manager for Google South Africa, explained in a company blog post. "The technology is well suited to provide low cost connectivity to rural communities with poor telecommunications infrastructure, and for expanding coverage of wireless broadband in densely populated urban areas."

In the U.S., the Federal Communications Commission has been working to free up spectrum for wireless carriers, which complain they lack adequate available spectrum to keep up with market demand for data services. However, TV broadcasters have resisted the idea of unlicensed use, worried that allowing others to use white space, which is very close to the frequencies they occupy, could cause interference.

The FCC approved new rules in 2010 for using unlicensed white space that included establishing databases to track clear frequencies and ensure that devices do not interfere with existing broadcast TV license holders.

Google revealed earlier this month that it had begun testing a new database that would allow unlicensed TV broadcast spectrum to be used for wireless broadband and shared among many users. The new database is intended to keep track of the TV broadcast frequencies in use so that wireless broadband devices can take advantage of the unlicensed space on the spectrum.

"White Space technology is gaining momentum around the world," Mgwili-Sibanda concluded. "We hope the results of the trial will drive similar regulatory developments in South Africa and other African countries."