South Africa has become the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to take steps toward utilizing unused spectrum in the television band for Wi-Fi for underserved areas.

The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) has signed a memoranda of understanding with two local universities and the CSIR Meraka Institute to study unused spectrum and the design and production of devices that can be used for Wi-Fi.

Due to potential interference, the TV band usually has unused spectrum in between any two stations, and this is usually referred to as "white space" that can be used for data, voice and video connectivity, particularly in rural areas where there is less communications infrastructure in place than in more heavily populated areas.

"If one TV station is on channel 39, the other station can only be allocated channel 41 to reduce interference -- channel 40 is the white space and can be used by smaller companies in underserved areas," said Dumisa Ngwenya, general manager in charge of engineering at ICASA.

Ngwenya was speaking Wednesday at a workshop in Johannesburg, organized by the Wireless Access Providers Association and Association of Progressive Communications and sponsored by Google. The meeting shared outcomes from the U.S. and U.K., which have been piloting projects that use white spaces.

"The MOU with Meraka Institute and the two local universities will ensure that South Africa's policy is well-informed even though the pilot and research and development could take place concurrently," added Ngwenya.

Mozambique, Kenya and Nigeria also expressed interest in piloting white-space services, saying that congestion in urban areas, among other things, would make the service attractive to both big and small operators.

The countries were responding to a question by Google, on whether they would be willing to pilot the service and develop policies depending on the outcome and the needs of specific countries. Google, together with the Wananchi Group, has already deployed low-cost Wi-Fi at various shopping malls and social places in Nairobi and is hoping to drive up the number of Internet users.

With most countries yet to migrate to digital TV, the 700MHz band is not yet free and most have indicated that it will be allocated to mobile service providers for LTE in order to free the GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) band. Applicants for the free white-spaces spectrum are expected to be allocated 500MHz.

The discussion in Johannesburg revolved around licensing and whether the spectrum should be free, whether there would be interference, and the benefit to the economy. The broadcasters are uneasy with the usage of white spaces because it is not yet clear how the allocation will be done and whether it will interfere with services.

"We welcome the idea of piloting the Wi-Fi but there are challenges of dealing with interference and how to maintain a database of who is using which frequency at what time," said Americo Muchanga, director general of the Mozambican Communications Regulatory Authority, which is in charge of spectrum allocation.

Hyacinth Nwana, head of spectrum at the Office of Communication in the U.K., shared the outcome of the pilot, pointing out that the use of white spaces provided connectivity in some remote areas in the country that would otherwise have probably not attracted investors.

Even though Africa is now covered by several fiber-optic cables, affordable access is still an issue and high capital and operational expenditures have made the bigger operators shy away from economically unattractive areas. The white spaces spectrum is expected to have lower capital and operational expenditure because it would serve smaller areas, and the base stations are expected to be cheaper than other types of base stations.

Operators in some countries are also expected to formulate partnerships with smaller operators that would allow offloading of capacity to the smaller networks to ease congestion at the towers.

"Mobile operators can enhance offerings, complement existing solutions, improve quality of service and reduce customer complaints if there is more [than] one network available, in case the provider's service goes down," said Neil Ahlstrom, business development lead at Google sub-Saharan Africa.