Microsoft CEO meets Ol Pejeta Conservancy executives

With the launch of Microsoft’s new Windows 10 operating system yesterday, you might have expected to find the corporation’s CEO at its headquarters in Redmond, Washington.

Instead, Satya Nadella chose to celebrate the launch from Nanyuki in northern Kenya, where he has been learning about the use of solar power and ‘TV white space’ to provide low-cost, high-speed wireless broadband access to remote and isolated communities surrounding Ol Pejeta Conservancy.

Video courtesy of Microsoft.

During his visit, Mr Nadella met with the conservancy’s senior managers – Richard Vigne (CEO) and Rob Breare (COO) to learn more about a pilot project being run by Ol Pejeta and partners that could help inform Microsoft’s own white spaces project.

What is TV white space?

TV white spaces (TVWS) are frequencies that have been allocated for broadcasting, but which are not being used.

While some of these white spaces are designed to prevent interference between channels, the move towards digital broadcasting means that more and more of these frequencies are becoming available for other uses.

Able to travel long distances and pass through obstacles such as trees, buildings and rugged terrain, TVWS frequencies are extremely well-suited to wireless communications.

Connecting people

Many of the people living around Ol Pejeta Conservancy face economic hardships – a situation exacerbated by poor internet and power availability, which limits their access to wider regional, national and international markets.

The use of TVWS could change all this, with small business owners and cooperatives able to sell their products more widely using better market information.

For farmers and other smallholders in the area, TVWS could also be used to inform land-use planning for conservation and agriculture, and to improve collaboration between the conservancy, community organisations and land-holders. In turn, this should boost productivity and reduce the impacts of drought in bad years.

With support from Fauna & Flora International (FFI) and Vulcan Inc., Ol Pejeta Conservancy has already begun trialling the use of TVWS as part of its community development programme.

Video courtesy of Ol Pejeta Conservancy.

In partnership with Mawingu Networks and Microsoft, this pilot project has already established wireless internet coverage for a number of the primary and secondary schools supported by the conservancy.

Ol Pejeta’s community programme is a core facet of its operations, as Richard Vigne explains: “We live in a poor area of Kenya. It’s incumbent upon us to be an engine for development…and it’s probably not possible to achieve meaningful conservation without the support of neighbouring communities.”

Protecting wildlife

It is not only people who stand to benefit from TVWS, however.

Among many other potential applications for this technology, TVWS wireless could help conservationists protect vulnerable wildlife from poaching through better surveillance and monitoring, and improved communications between field and office staff.

Video courtesy of Microsoft.

All this could become a reality soon, with plans to establish a Conservation Lab at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in the next 24 months.

This lab forms part of a wider initiative between FFI and the United for Wildlife coalition that aims to draw on international expertise and develop technological solutions to some of the world’s most pressing conservation problems.

The lab at Ol Pejeta will test some of the most promising innovations developed through this collaboration, including many that will make use of TVWS technologies.

Ol Pejeta Conservancy. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI.

Ol Pejeta Conservancy. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI.

Speaking about the day’s events, FFI’s Rob Brett said, “Satya Nadella’s visit has drawn attention to the huge potential for wireless internet and TVWS to transform educational and enterprise opportunities for local communities around Ol Pejeta Conservancy, and for monitoring and conserving shared environments and wildlife populations.”

ARM (whose technology is at the heart of many of electronic products sold around the world) has been supporting FFI and the Conservation Labs initiative since early 2014 to help build the capacity of local stakeholders to harness technologies for conservation.