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The Philippines bridges digital divide with TV White Spaces

After Singapore, the Philippines is the only country in Southeast Asia evaluating TV White Spaces to provide citizens with faster and cheaper internet access. FutureGov speaks with Louis Casambre, Executive Director of the ICT-Office at the Departme...

05/03/2013

In 2011, the United Nations passed a resolution declaring internet access as a basic human right. The resolution emphasised government’s role in ensuring every citizen is ‘connected’ and able to enjoy the benefits of accessing the world’s wealth of information.

In an effort to connect the unconnected, governments and their industry partners are leveraging state-of-the art technologies to provide citizens with faster and more affordable broadband internet. An example of such an effort is the use of TV White Spaces.

TV White Spaces are unused TV broadcast channels made available by the transition from analog to digital TV. It has been touted by organisations, such as the Office of Communications in UK, as an untapped resource that has the potential to unleash a myriad of applications and services, given its attractive propagation characteristics and relatively large frequency blocks.

In the Philippines, the ICT-Office is rolling out broadband internet in the rural areas using TV White Spaces as part of the agency’s Php 470-million (US$11.5 million) Integrated Government Philippines (iGovPhil) Project.

According to Casambre, the agency will tap unused frequencies between TV channels to deliver data connectivity to further support rural broadband, telemedicine, educational content delivery and to enhance the the data gathering capability of the government’s sensor networks.

“Normal Wi-Fi coverage is only limited to just a few meters. TV White Spaces on the other hand, covers 16 times more than conventional Wi-Fi and can also be used as a backend to distribute Wi-Fi to rural areas. This is why it is popularly dubbed as ‘Super Wi-Fi’,” he says.

“We see this as an untapped natural resource that should be maximised to realise our vision of bridging the digital divide between rural and urban communities. It can potentially serve as an initial seed for communities located in remote and far flung areas to access the wealth of information available on the internet, and also have the chance to climb up the economic ladder.”

TV White Spaces vs Normal WiFi

The TV White Spaces network works in much the same way as conventional Wi-Fi, but the signals travel over longer distances than the typical Wi-Fi signal. In typical applications, a strong Wi-Fi signal can cover 100 meters only, while a Wi-Fi signal through the TV White Spaces can easily travel 400 meters, and with higher power can cover up to 10 kilometers.

“With TV White Spaces, we can penetrate common obstructions such as concrete walls. This is especially advantageous in many rural areas where the conventional Wi-Fi cannot penetrate the heavy foliage and other various topographical challenges. Wi-Fi through TV White Spaces can overcome these limits. Just as your TV signal passes through walls (and many of them), the wireless signal for your Internet connection will as well.”

He adds that considering the lower cost of infrastructure deployment for last mile compared to wired network (copper and fiber optic cable), the government expects TV White Spaces technology to lower broadband internet pricing where it is deployed.

Public-Private Partnership model

The ICT-Office at DOST is working together with local regulators such as the National Telecommunications Commission and US Federal Communications Commission to draft the necessary regulatory frameworks to conduct the commercial pilots.

“In addition, we are also working together with the Advanced Science Technology Institute, the Academe, the Institute of Electrical and Electrical and Electronics Engineers (3E) and the National Economic Development Authority. We are engaging NEDA because we wanted to bring in some expertise on how TV White Spaces can affect certain aspects of the economy.”

Casambre explains that the TV White Spaces project will be managed under a Public-Private Partnership model, a move initiated by President Aquino in an effort to aggressively pump prime the economy and to achieve results faster.

“From the private sector, we are working with Microsoft, our local major telecommunication providers and White Spaces technology providers such as Neul and Adaptrum.”

“We will be deploying two TV White Spaces pilot projects, one of which will be spearheaded by the Government while the other one will be managed by the Private Sector.”

The Government is investing Php 30 million (US$ 735,000) for the first pilot of TV White Spaces. The bulk of which, will go to the purchase of equipment, base stations, IT installation and commissioning.

“The commercial pilots will not be subsidised by the government, so any investment they do in rolling out their pilot, they would eventually have to recover. In exchange for their participation in our initiative, we will guarantee them a certain period of time (3-5 years) for them to conduct their pilot on a commercial basis.”

Casambre adds that the government’s intention is not to compete with the private sector but to provide them an environment conducive for innovation and deliver more efficient services to citizens .

Seeking out alternatives

“We considered looking at other technologies such as USF, but none of them are as attractive as TV White Spaces. Was this the most appealing option from a cost-benefit analysis? Not really but the fact is the spectrum is unused which means we can leverage existing infrastructure. All we have to do is establish the necessary tools to fully maximise it unlike the investment in rolling out fiber optic and submarine cables.”

He notes that while TV White Spaces is not necessarily cheap, it is the only option that can reach out to far flung communities considering the country’s archipelagic nature and the lack of the necessary infrastructure.

“For the Philippines, with more than seven thousand islands, TV White Spaces would allow us to effectively deploy broadband coverage to areas not usually reached by conventional wired or wireless broadband.”

The progress so far

“The goal of the DOST-ICTO pilot trials is to determine the correct parameters (antenna height, transmit power, etc) to limit interference of TV White Spaces. The framework for the commercial trial and eventual commercialisation will depend on results from the pilot trials.”

“In the meantime, we’re in the midst of preparing our first pilot which will take place by the end of the second quarter. Our team is waiting for the equipment to arrive.”

Pilot trials will be in Quezon City, Central Visayas, Western and Eastern Mindanao. Technology trials in Visayas will cover the municipalities of Talibon and Tubigon in Bohol.

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