Philippines to tap vacant TV frequencies for rural, govt broadband

Seeking to address the problem of low broadband connectivity and introduce the service in unserved areas, the Philippine government has unveiled plans to tap TV white spaces or the vacant frequencies between broadcast TV channels for wireless data communications.

The Information and Communications Technology Office of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST-ICTO) said the deployment of the new standard called  TV White Space (TVWS) technologies will begin in June and will also be primarily used to support government initiatives requiring data connectivity such as disaster mitigation, education and telehealth initiatives.

DOST-ICTO Undersecretary Louis N. Casambre explained in a press briefing that only 47 percent of cities and municipalities have broadband access and the service is usually limited to the immediate vicinity of urban centers. Only 35 percent of 95.6 million Filipinos use the Internet and only 20 percent of households have computers. However, cellular services cover almost 95 percent of the country. There are also about  95 million active cellphones and 2 billion SMS messages are sent annually.

"Rural Philippines is caught in a vicious cycle. Families in remote areas cannot afford broadband connections priced at P1,000 ($) per month. Therefore, the private sector does not see an acceptable return on investment (ROI). Consequently, only 45 percent of public high schools and 2 percent of public elementary schools have Internet access. Most of these institutions  have Internet connection speeds of only 512 Kbps shared by the whole school. The national telehealth service also do not use broadband, only mobile SMS," Casambre noted.

Under the  TV White Space (TVWS) initiative, the government sees wireless data delivery as an ideal medium for the country because of its long distance propagation characteristics and the ability of its signals to travel over water and through thick foliage. The Philippines is an archipelago with  7,100 islands.

"In the early days of TV, 'guard band' channels are intentionally left unused to avoid interference between active channels. In addition, there are also unused TV channels not being utilized yet by broadcast companies. These channels are not in use or are no longer need. Therefore, it is a wasted national resource," Casambre said.

In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has already approved the use of TVWS for unlicensed broadband connectivity. Casambre said this promotes the maximum utilization of spectrum and the Philippine government hopes to do the same.

Huge opportunity

In the Philippines, the ICTO official explained that there are about 306mHZ of bandwidth allocated for TV - 72MHz for the VHF and 234 MHz for UHF.

"The Philippines is on the edge of migrating to digital TV. However, even after the migration to Digital Terrestrial Television Broadcasting (DTTB), there would still be a lot of unused channels for use," Casambre said.

DOST-ICTO estimates that there are about 24-31 channels (46 percent white space) available in the rural areas. The national capital region and Cebu has 24 unused channels (63 percent) and the Mindanao area (Davao) has about 18 (62-80 percent).

"This is very small compared to the fiber optic services provided by the telcos but it will provide a stepping stone for the nascent or deprived markets until such time that they eventually afford the services that only the telcos can provide," Casambre explained.

Smarter spectrum usage

DOST Secretary Mario G. Montejo emphasized that other than providing connectivity to underserved areas and powering smart sensors that will provide data for decision makers in government, the government also see this as a move towards the efficient or "smarter" use of spectrum.

This is because unused frequencies can be utilized by various devices and allocate spectrum when needed. The government needs spectrum for emergency services or even the military. At the point of need, they can readily be allocated bandwidth, while secondary users can move to another frequency.

"There is no acquisition of frequency per se here. At least not in the traditional sense," Casambre emphasized, adding that unlike the traditional frequency management regime, spectrum is allocated as needed. So there is no wastage of the precious resource.

Roadmap for deployment

DOST-ICTO said  pilot tests in the Quezon City are where most government headquarters are located were finished in 2012. This year, the TVWS project team is headed for the Visayas and Mindanao areas.

In the province of Bohol (in Central Visayas) where the next pilot test would run, the government is setting up base stations in two coastal villages that would provide Internet access to at least 60 public elementary schools within the 10-kilometer radius.  

George Tardio, TVWS Project Team, said the schools will not only be the beneficiaries but also village centers, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) and a USAID  project stationed in the area.

"We'd like to emphasize that we are just at the very beginning of this project. We have to determine the best way to go about adopting this technology," Casambre said, adding that as the project moves along, appropriate policies such as licensing, usage fees, interference, spectrum availability and database management and ownership will need to be established for long-term adoption.