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Expanding Nigeria’s rural connectivity through TVWS initiative

By Adeyemi Adepetun
06 May 2020   |   3:07 am
Movement restrictions being introduced by Federal and state governments to curb the spread of the Coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) has resulted in increased reliance by Nigerians

Movement restrictions being introduced by Federal and state governments to curb the spread of the Coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) has resulted in increased reliance by Nigerians on data/broadband services to carry out their personal and official activities, especially in urban centres. ADEYEMI ADEPETUN writes that this trend has, thus, justified the ongoing efforts by the Nigerian Government, through the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), to deploy television white space (TVWS) technology to extend affordable broadband services to the rural, underserved and unserved areas of the country in an effort to ensure national digital inclusion.

Bridging Nigeria, and indeed Africa’s digital divide may have become highly important now than ever before, going by the ‘new normal’ brought about by the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19), everybody both in urban and rural areas in Nigeria and other African countries, are depending on access to affordable broadband to carry out their daily activities and engagement.

COVID-19 has changed the way people work, communicate and interact across all frontiers, as people have learnt, and gradually becoming accustomed to working remotely. In the wake of the restrictions introduced by the Nigerian government, for instance, virtual and videoconferencing meetings have become the new enablers.

At the comfort of their homes in Nigeria, people can connect to their loved ones in the faraway USA, even Australia through zoom, Skype, Facebook Messenger, and other platforms, most especially in the urban areas and cities where broadband services are available.

These platforms latch on affordable, reliable and ubiquitous Internet facilities to remain the order of the day.

Besides, this also means that new set of skills, infrastructure upgrade, and proper orientation have equally become important if Nigeria and another part of the continent must bridge the divided, and contribute significantly to global development.

According to Internet World Stats, Africa with a population of 1.34 billion has 526.7 million people on the Internet, a penetration of 39.3 per cent, which is still below global penetration average of 58.8 per cent. Nigeria, on its part, estimated to have about 200 million people, has 128 million people online (61.2 per cent), largely through the narrow band (GSM technology), while broadband penetration is still about 38.5 per cent.

These statistics, notwithstanding, still showed that whether in Nigeria or other parts of the region, a larger percentage of the population is still offline.

Assessing the current digital divide
Lack of access to telecommunications services, especially Internet/broadband and other Information and Communication Technology (ICT) tools are usually called the digital divide by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). As such, the challenge of bridging digital gaps in Africa has remained a daunting task for governments and operators, occasioned by lack of adequate ICT/telecoms infrastructure most especially in the rural areas.

In Nigeria with a population of over 200 million, statistics showed that there is an apparent digital divide, as Internet penetration stands at about 39 per cent, while teledensity for mobile subscription stands at around 90 per cent. Basically, obstacles to low Internet users in Nigeria include low computer literacy level, limited telecommunications infrastructures, sustainable energy and most especially high cost of Internet services.

Bridging the digital divide through pervasive broadband
However, there have been efforts at bridging the extant digital divide in Africa, especially in Nigeria with a number of initiatives being put in place by the telecoms regulator, the NCC, under the leadership of its current Executive Vice Chairman, Prof. Umar Garba Danbatta. Such initiatives include the promotion of robust broadband infrastructure through encouraging the deployment of fibre optic cables, developing regulation to regulate commercial satellite operations in Nigeria to complement efforts at deepening broadband services.

The latest of such effort by the NCC was its decision to develop a regulatory framework that will encourage the use of Television White Space (TVWS) technology, to expand affordable telecoms services to rural, underserved and un-served areas of the country. The TVWS technology is expected to play a huge role in deepening broadband Internet in rural communities across Nigeria so that many Nigerians in the rural communities can have access to affordable broadband services.

Just like Nigeria, countries around the world are beginning to explore the potentiality of TVWS as an alternative cost-effective means of extending broadband services to rural and other unconnected communities towards accelerate digital access to all.

What is TVWS?
Basically, TVWS is an unused and vacant broadcasting spectrum but which can be used to deploy affordable broadband services to rural communities. Technically, the spectra are interleaved frequencies located between broadcast TV channels in the Very High Frequency/Ultra High Frequency (VHF/UHF) range.

By its nature, it can be effectively utilized, rather than left unused in the broadcasting sector, to provide Internet access to the underserved and unserved regions of the country, mostly in rural service areas at broadband speeds as a form of providing Internet connectivity to people who are not yet reached with Internet services. It is cheap to deploy and offers throughput equivalent to broadband speed to rural dwellers.

Efforts by NCC to deploy TVWS in Nigeria
Early in 2019, the NCC held an industry stakeholders forum to discuss the ways out in developing a framework for the deployment of TVWS to achieve rural connectivity in Nigeria. In this measure by the Danbatta-led NCC, efforts are being geared towards TVWS technology utilisation. This was being driven in collaboration with the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), which regulates broadcast spectrum such as the TVWS and with the support and approval of the National Frequency Management Council (NFMC).

Also, early this year, the NCC held another industry stakeholder forum chaired by the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Pantami, to get the final input into the draft Guidelines for the use of TVWS for rural broadband connectivity in Nigeria. The regulation is now in place and will be put into proper implementation with players being licensed to use TVWS to offer affordable broadband services in the rural areas across Nigeria.

TVWS as a fillip to the digital economy
Speaking at the industry stakeholder forum in Abuja, Pantami unequivocally said the TVWS framework being developed by the Danbatta-led NCC will enhance the delivery of the digital economy agenda of the Federal Government, noting that the TVWS Guidelines is in sync with the objective of the National Digital Economy Policy and Strategy (NDEPS) unveiled by President Muhammadu Buhari in November last year.

Going down memory lane, the Minister noted the development TVWS Guidelines by the NCC came up “as a result of a resolution by the National Frequency Management Council (NFMC) in which NCC and NBC were urged to work together by setting up an inter-agency committee that will ensure the deployment and usage of the spectrum for TVWS.”

He said while TVWS is domiciled with NBC, NCC’s decision to want to leverage the technology to bring affordable broadband services to unserved and under-served areas in Nigeria is commendable, saying this is part of the mandate of NCC to ensure universal access to telecoms services.

“It is because of this that NFMC urged both to work together for the effective utilisation of TVWS, which also supports the expanded mandate of the ministry towards advancing government’s vision of promoting the digital economy. In fact, the framework directly addresses two of the eight pillars of NDEPS, which are pillar one and three focusing on developmental regulations, and solid infrastructure, which has broadband access as a central component,” he said. Pantami commended the efforts of NCC and NBC for complying with the rule-making process by organising a stakeholder forum to take inputs before finalising work on the TVWS regulations.

Similarly, the Chairman, Board of Commissioners, Prof. Adeolu Akande, who also spoke at the industry stakeholder consultative forum, said the leadership of NCC will continue to provide necessary policy directions to the commission for effective regulations of the telecoms industry.

According to him, countries such as the United States of America, Singapore, United Kingdom, Canada, Kenya, Namibia and South Africa, have made significant progress towards the optimisation, utilisation and regulation of TVWS, and Nigeria will do so too.

Part of the framework
Meanwhile, Danbatta, who expressed the commitment of the Commission to deepening connectivity in Nigerian, said the release of the guidelines was in the exercise of the commission’s functions enshrined in the Nigerian Communications Act (NCA), 2003, which empowers the NCC to develop the Commercial Satellite Communications Guidelines for the telecommunications industry in Nigeria, which came into effect in November 2018.

The NCC boss stressed that the TVWS Guidelines provide a framework to enable licence-exempt transmitters to operate in the UHF band, which “are allocated on a primary basis to the broadcast television service, on frequencies and at locations where the spectrum is either not assigned to licensed services or not in use at particular times while protecting primary users from receiving harmful interference.”

According to him, the license-exempt radio transmitters will allow for the provision of affordable broadband and Internet access in unserved and underserved areas within Nigeria and support the development of Internet of Things applications, including agriculture.

The guidelines, among others, established the framework consistent with the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the NBC and NCC, through which the NBC and the NCC may authorize the use of the TVWS spectrum, consistent with the ITU Radio Regulations and consistent the recommendation 76 of the 2012 World Radio Conference (WRC-12).

Experts speak on the benefits of TVWS to increased connectivity
According to analysts, the benefits of TVWS are enormous. These include; improving rural broadband deployment; boosting educational and enterprise video conferencing; enhancing local coverage and communications; improving auxiliary public safety communications, among others.

Telecoms expert, Kehinde, Aluko, who commended the NCC for its efforts in driving digital connectivity in rural communities, explained that there are highly favourable propagation characteristics of the TV broadcast spectrum (as compared to operation at 1.9 GHz or 2.5 GHz) allowing for wireless broadband deployment with a greater range of operation (including the ability to pass through buildings, weather, and foliage) at lower power levels.

He said with this technical attributes, TVWS could be used to provide better broadband service in less densely populated and bad weather areas, as well as a first broadband service in many rural and other remote areas.

Aluko said with COVID-19 now restricting people, TVWS can be used to increase the reliability and decrease the cost of video conferencing on government agencies, college and commercial campuses. For example, combined with broadband connectivity, he said such video conferencing could help enable distance learning for students in remote locations for whom traditional classroom-based learning is impractical.

He stressed that the bandwidth characteristics of the TV broadcast spectrum could enable enhanced video security applications for commercial, residential, and government purposes.

According to him, localities could use TV white spaces to enable mobile video services. These services could provide information of special interest to the local community; coverage of local sporting events; and new methods for local advertisers to reach customers in a more targeted and valued manner.

According to the President, Association of Telecoms Companies of Nigeria (ATCON), Olusola Teniola, TVWS remains one of the many technologies that will form the basis for last-mile connectivity in rural areas of the country and this has already been deliberated in NCC with a recent stakeholder forum held in Abuja in March 2020 to ratify the enabling guidelines for adoption.

Teniola said there are already telecoms companies looking at adopting and deploying this as a last-mile solution in the hinterlands.

On his part, the Chairman, Mobile Software Solution, Chris Uwaje, said available research findings have provided the TV White Proof of concept on the sustainable usability of TV White Space, that is, that the unused spectrum can be used to provide broadband Internet access while operating harmoniously with surrounding TV channels.

Going forward
Meanwhile, stakeholders have said that there is need to create a dynamic stakeholders advocacy platform to propagate the importance, needs, and benefits of TV White Space as a national resource in order to drive its adoption and subsequently, penetrate Internet-enabled broadband to the unsaved rural communities.

According to them, there must be constructive engagement, promotion, adoption and diffusion of TVWS in Nigeria, saying that this approach should be seen as a strategic imperative to deliver affordable broadband access to the under-served in Nigeria, saying that already the NCC has laid the regulatory foundation, through the TVWS Guidelines.

They argued that the next task is implementation whereby the NCC will ensure that companies are permitted to leverage the TVWS to promote cost-effective rural broadband. They also emphasised the need to address current challenges to deployment in the country. They task the NCC to ensure licences are given to those interested in applying for a TVWS licence to achieve the country’s extension of affordable broadband services to the rural community leveraging TVWS Guidelines.