Five schools in rural Limpopo officially got broadband connections today, when Microsoft cut the ribbon on its TV White Spaces (TVWS) pilot project in the region. Working with local networking firm Multisource, the software company has provided each school with a TVWS transceiver which links the schools with a broadband node at the University of Limpopo.

The schools are a mix of primary and secondary: Mountainview, Doasho, Mamabudusha, Mphetsebe and Ngwanalaka.

The schools have been equipped with a range of laptops and tablets along with training to use them in class. The transceivers themselves, meanwhile, have actually been in operation for four weeks, giving teachers chance to get to grips with the tech before today’s big unveiling. (Our own Brett Haggard is in Limpopo now and will be filing a full report from the project this evening.)

TVWS could be an important technology for getting more South Africans online. While the telecoms industry and regulator drag their collective heels around licensing and infrastructure for getting high-speed broadband to areas beyond the urban centres, TVWS could potentially be used without regulatory approval if ICASA gives it the nod.

TVWS uses the same part of the spectrum as analogue TV. As the name suggests, wireless broadband signals are carried in the gaps – or White Spaces – between traditional terrestrial channels. Because these frequencies vary in different areas, it’s slightly more adaptive to interference than fixed frequency technologies. Ultimately, the plan is for South Africa to catch up with other countries and use the entire spectrum currently earmarked for TV broadcasts for LTE mobile broadband – just like other countries.

That, however, depends on the ‘digital switchover’ – a wholesale migration of TV broadcasting from analogue to digital technologies. And that’s not going to happen in South Africa any time soon.

TVWS, however, is more akin to WiFi than LTE in terms of internet protocol use, making it potentially much more affordable for poorer areas. (There’s a nice primer on it here.)

Meanwhile, in last night’s State of the Nation address, president Jacob Zuma spoke briefly about the National Broadband Plan (aka SA Connect) which aims to get every South African online. SA Connect lays down an official target of 5Mbps for 90% of the population by 2020, and a cunning plan to connect schools and healthcare facilities first and use these as nodes for further infrastructure development.

Limpopo schools are infamous for being let down by late or non-delivery of textbooks. And it’s here that TVWS – or similar low cost broadband technologies – might well have the most impact.

“Some of the schools in the area have a shortage of materials,” says professor Mahlo Mokgalong, vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Limpopo. “So, the project will definitely benefit the learners in those schools and expose them to computer usage so that they can become true 21st century students and, eventually, valuable employees.”

Other TVWS pilots have been conducted in South Africa, notably in the Western Cape by Google. Microsoft has funded this particular trial through its 4Afrika program, and has similar tests running in Ghana, Kenya and Tanzania. Singaporean authorities, meanwhile, this week announced an official regulatory framework for the technology.

Here’s a little video made by Microsoft about the project so far:

[Image – CC Sarah Reid]