Solar-powered Wi-Fi pioneered in Kenya

Solar-powered Wi-Fi is being introduced to Kenya’s isolated western Rift Valley Province offering local people easy access to the internet for the first time. This pilot project – named Mawingu, the Swahili word for “cloud” – is part of an initiative by Microsoft and local telecoms firms to provide affordable, high-speed wireless broadband to rural areas.

The project region is isolated and living can be hard, with no cash crops, no electricity, no phone lines, and hardly any rain. Gakawa Senior Secondary School is located there about 10 kilometres from Nanyuki town. “For internet access we had to travel 10 kilometres to Nanyuki and it would cost 100 Kenya shillings [about $1.20] to get there,” says Beatrice Nderango, the school’s headmistress. “Internet access is a life-changing experience and it’s going to give both our students and teachers added motivation for learning,” says Nderango. “It will also make my job as headmistress a little easier.”

There is certainly a great demand for internet services across the country. In just 1 year between 2011 and 2012 the number of Kenyan Internet users increased by a staggering 95%. Internet access is mainly through mobile phones, in 2012 over 71% of Kenyans were mobile phone users

However bringing the internet to people in rural areas with no power sources has been a problem until now. Microsoft’s creative and affordable solution is to use solar power, old-fashioned antennas and derelict TV frequencies. Once solar-powered base stations have been built then Microsoft will work with the Kenyan telecom firm Indigo to supply a wireless signal at a bandwidth that falls into what is called the “white spaces” spectrum.

This refers to the bits of the wireless spectrum that are being freed up as television moves from analogue to digital – a set of frequencies between 400 megahertz and about 800 megahertz. These frequencies can penetrate walls, bend around hills and travel much longer distances than the conventional Wi-Fi we have at home. That means that the technology requires fewer base stations to provide wider coverage, and wannabe web surfers in the village need only a traditional TV antenna attached to a smartphone or tablet to access the signal and get online. Microsoft is supplying some for the trial, as well as solar-powered charging stations.

To begin with, Indigo has set up two solar-powered white-space base stations in three villages to deliver wireless broadband access to 20 locations, including schools, healthcare clinics, community centres and government offices.

“Africa is the perfect location to pioneer white-space technology,” says Indigo’s Peter Henderson, thanks to governments’ open-mindedness. Indeed, Kenya has a strong chance of being one of the world leaders in white-space roll-out. While the US has already legalised use of derelict TV bands, it has yet to standardise the database technology that will tell devices which frequencies are free to use at their GPS location.

In the UK, white-space access should finally be up and running by the end of 2013, says William Webb of white-space startup Neul in Cambridge. “White-space trials are also taking place in Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Africa and many other countries – and some of these may move directly to allowing access without needing lengthy consultations,” he says. In many cases, it has been these consultations that have slowed the technology‘s progress.

If the project succeeds and it is rolled out nationwide, as planned, it will mean that Kenya could lead the way with a model of wireless broadband access that in the West has been tied up in red tape. Microsoft future goal is to roll out the initiative to other African nations, such as sub-Saharan countries.

Sources include New Scientist, humanipo.com

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