Google is poised to flood Africa with uncontrolled connectivity via TV White Space frequencies, according the Wall Street Journal, though other wireless technologies will contribute to the mix.
The report, citing the usual "people familiar", doesn't say how much Mountain View will be investing in the project, only that it will blanket rural areas - including sub-Saharan Africa and south-east Asia - and will probably rely on a variety of techniques for backhaul, including high-altitude platforms (blimps) and satellites.
Realistically, such esoteric technologies will only be needed in the most rural of areas; they're unnecessary anywhere a microwave relay can be sited with a reliable power feed (and not stolen). More than a billion people live in such areas, and White Space spectrum is the ideal way to address the last 20, 30 or 40 miles of connectivity.
White Spaces are radio frequencies not being used locally for TV transmissions, resulting from a historical anomaly. TV was an early claimant on radio frequencies and thus got allocated some of the best bands, in the 500MHz to 600MHz region, so those bands have always been off limits for internet access.
White Space networks get around that problem by using an online database of available frequencies. A base station, once it's connected to the microwave/blimp/satellite, reports its GPS coordinates and the protocol it would like to use. The database then responds with an available frequency and maximum permitted transmission power, to prevent interference with TV signals further away. The base station passes that information on to its client devices and the network is live.
The clients can be tens of miles away, but as the signals can easily pass through walls and trees, direct line of sight isn't needed. Hills will still block transmission, and the curvature of the Earth can also be an issue (though some curvature of signal is possible). The kit is really cheap though and there's a wealth of existing knowledge about how to improve reception in the TV bands.
Google has already run trials using White Space in South Africa, and Microsoft has also been linking up schools in the area (and making heart-warming videos about it), but both companies are running databases in the United States, where White Space radios recently became legal, and the UK, where they should be legal by the end of 2013.
These companies are particularly keen on White Space technology as it is being deployed licence-free, and thus beyond the control of the incumbent network operators.
The UK has been leading the world in the technology, but spectrum regulator Ofcom has been overwhelmed by the Olympics and 4G auctions, so is lagging slightly in permitting the exploitation of White Space frequencies.
Africa desperately needs more connectivity, and it's entirely unsurprising to find Google jumping in to provide it. Until we know the scale of the investment we can't say how significant this news is, but it's clear that White Space will play an important role in bringing the light of the internet to the Dark Continent. ®