Telcos can deliver upgrade for e-transmission of poll results in 12 months –ALTON president - Punch Newspapers

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8/1/2021 4:44:00 AM

Telcos can deliver upgrade for e-transmission of poll results in 12 months –ALTON president - Punch Newspapers

The most widely read newspaper in Nigeria

1 August 2021The President of the Association of Licensed Telecommunications Operators of Nigeria, Mr Gbenga Adebayo, speaks to TOBI AWORINDE on the technology of electronic transmission in transmitting election results and how it eases the burden on the electoral process

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Technicallyspeaking, what logistics are required to successfully transmit election results electronically?Our regulator (Nigerian Communications Commission) has spoken and said what is required is a minimum of 3G coverage, that is, third generation coverage, which is able to send voice, data, text and video information simultaneously at high quality with minimal latency and it is reliable. Also, where added interfaces are required either to compress or encrypt the information for better security, it is easier to do it on 3G networks than it is on 2G. So, the requirement would be to have sites that are covering areas that have polling centres upgraded to 3G and this will be to increase the backbone capacity to those sites. It will also include replacing and upgrading the capacity of the last mile radios on those sites as well as other interfaces that will now deliver 3G services above the 2G that is currently in those locations. In summary, it is to increase the transmission capacity to those sites, then upgrade the elements that deliver last mile services from 2G to 3G.

Practically speaking, can you break down what this upgrade entails?If there are sites that are connected to the national network by radio, you need to increase the capacity of the radio, so to say. If there are sites that are connected on the route of the fibre, instead of replacing or upgrading the radio, you just need to connect them to the national fibre backbone, which would be the best recommendation actually. This is because, again, radio is susceptible to interference but fibre is point-to-point and can deliver high speeds, irrespective of distance. So, the recommendation would be that for such critical sites, they should be connected to the national backbone via fibre optic rings. That would be the first point. headtopics.com

The second is that the interfaces there have to be upgraded from 2G to 3G and the antennal elements also have to be upgraded, in essence, the last mile radios—the radios that deliver optimal services from the cell sites to the terminals, that is, the devices—have to be upgraded from 2G to 3G.

Can you give a definition of backbone?The backbone is actually the connection ring. It is like the expressway that carries the high traffic. It is that link that connects the main centre with the various last miles in various parts of the country. If, for example, you have a ring road traversing a city, that can be the backbone highway for that city. So, this is like the ring that connects cities, towns and centres across the country. They run into several thousand kilometres, but they are all like in one cyclic loop across the country. Some sites are connected to the national backbone by fibre, some are connected to the nearest hub site by microwave and these are areas where upgrade may be required. In the areas where the fibre backbone has not been extended to, there may be a need to extend the backbone to those areas. But I think, to a large extent, for most of the tier one cities, we have fibre backbone already present. The idea is that once you connect to the backbone, you are able to route traffic through in both directions, east and west. In essence, if traffic goes in one direction, because it’s a range, you can route traffic through in the other direction. If you draw the letter O on a table, for instance, and you have a cut in the middle, you can go from east to west and from west back to the east because it is in one ring. So, once you are able to ‘tee’ into the backbone, you have seen all parts of the network, which is all parts of the country, so to say. Backbone, therefore, is supporting infrastructure which connects towns, cities and sites.

Will the upgrade take a long time to complete?Yes and no. In the first instance, a number of those devices are not made locally and not many operators are holding them as stock items, they need to be ordered and delivered and there is a limited time required to order those equipment and deliver them. That is number one.

Number two, where you don’t yet have them connected on a fibre route, you need to expand the fibre from the backbone to those locations. In some cases, this could be a few kilometres or hundreds of kilometres. So, that also could take some time before you obtain right of way, excavate, lay the fibre, and connect onto the backbone. That also could take a bit of time—then the work to be done. But all things being equal—right of way approvals granted, which would be the recommendation—if you ask me, I would say for sites that have been identified as required to be upgraded from 2G to 3G, the government should grant express approval and free right of way to connect to those sites because it is now in the interest of national economic development. headtopics.com

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If right of way is provided and linked for those sites, if you ask me, I think a window of six to 12 months, we should be able to deliver on all the sites. In essence, you need the time to order the equipment, lay the fibre, install and commission. I would say a minimum of six months and not more than 12 months to complete this project. You can then say ‘national infrastructure upgrade.’

Is it safe to say the importation and expertise involved would make this an expensive process?Expertise we have, and we are very proud of that. We have expertise locally but because systems and those devices are not manufactured here, and they need to be imported, operators have to source for foreign exchange to buy those equipment. They have to follow the importation process to bring them in. Issues of congestion at the ports are also there and then bringing these equipment, delivering them, laying the fibre and installing them. So, the expertise we have, I think it’s just the willingness to make it happen that is the thing to be done and then the minimum time required. If there is commitment or zeal to do it, it can be upgraded very quickly.

Do you have an idea of how much the upgrade may cost?I wouldn’t be able to estimate cost because there are a number of variables. Number one is the distance of the sites to the backbone. In some cases, it could be a few kilometres, it could be several hundred or tens of hundreds of kilometres. In the second instance, it depends on the capacity of the radios that are being installed for the last mile. Those cost elements vary from location to location, so I wouldn’t be able to talk about cost. I can talk about turnaround time for the delivery.

Can you shed light on tele-density and its role in e-transmission?Tele-density can be defined as the number of telephone connections in every 100 individuals and it varies across countries, states, areas and so on. So, tele-density is the presence of communication users in a particular area. It’s the availability of telecommunication users in a particular location. For example, let me take two clusters of (Lagos) neighbourhoods: Oshodi is a very high-density cluster because it has many people. So, the tele-density in Oshodi will be very high because there are many users of telecom services who are present in that area. Now, a place like Ikoyi or Victoria Island is a low-population and low-density area because not many people are present there. So, tele-density explains the presence of telecom users in a particular location, which could be high or low density. When the density is high, that means there are many users. When it is said to be low, it means there are fewer users. headtopics.com

In terms of how it affects e-transmission, let’s look at the presence of people, which explains the tele density. They have voted and you want to transmit their results. Again, you are sending basic numbers, that is, basic text messages. You send numbers and figures, you are not necessarily sending high-volume information because you are only sending basic texts. But when you are beginning to upload pictures, tele density comes to play because a place that is highly populated, which means high density, will be required to have multiple points of presence to provide public information. If, for example, in a cluster, you have 100 voting sites, you may have to take photographic information for those 100 sites; you may need to capture 10 to 20 different scenes on a particular site for the purpose of reporting. So, it’s like you have 10 pictures per location for 100 of such locations; that is a high volume of information to be uploaded. But if you have a place with low density, you could have just two voting sites and for those two voting sites, you could take 10 pictures per site. That is 20 pictures to be uploaded as against 1,000 or 2,000 in some places where you have multiple sites.

In essence, when you’re talking about uploading photographic information, which is a higher volume of data, then density comes into play. But if you’re sending out basic texts, certainly the issue of density doesn’t come into play. It depends on what kind of information you are sending out and that is actually what will determine what speed you require and what level of reliability is required in sending that data forward.

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Is the e-transmission technology in any way related to that of the smart card readers already in use?When they talk about e-transmission, it’s just to send reports electronically. So, it’s not like you need a special transport medium to do it. It’s just collecting results in a particular place, collating it and posting it, so to say. It’s not like you are looking for a special card reader or card device to do some form of algorithm or processing. No! All they are saying is, ‘Take an end result and transmit it. Instead of sending it by physical post, dispatch or courier, send it by electronic means.’ Simply put, it is like, instead of sending you a letter, I send you a text message. That is actually what the electronic transmission is talking about. It’s not necessarily saying a technical process is required for reasons of uploading, downloading, coding and decoding of the data. That is not what it is saying.

Are there parts of the country that have not been covered by telecom providers?There are. I think even on the NCC website, you will find the access map, which explains the access gap, and there are still a few black spots around the corridor that are not covered, not even by 2G. So, while our tele-density is very high, we cannot say we are at 100 per cent. There are still a few black spots where when you are present, you don’t have coverage. There are also a few black spots that are not covered, not because your service is not present but there are obstacles around transmission in those areas.

For example, you could even be in a place within the city of Lagos where, due to obstructions of buildings or other infrastructure, you don’t have access to any telephone service. So, the access gap report is available on the NCC website, I suppose, and I think when you look at that map, it explains the areas of the country that are still regarded as black spots, that is, areas that are not fully covered by telephone services, not even the basic 2G. There are not many of such but, certainly, they do exist.

Why do places like that exist?It’s all part of the rollout. It just means that services haven’t reached those places; perhaps there hasn’t been any social or economic interest to deploy services in those areas. It could just happen like that.Is a server required for the e-transmission?

No. Again, it’s just a means of transmission; it’s to send the election results on the existing platform. Now, it is just about the method of sending it and what kind of quality of service is required, in terms of security and all that. Will it be sent as encrypted data? In essence, will they be scrambled information or sent as open texts? These are decisions that have to be made by the Independent National Electoral Commission about those who want to send information: ‘Do you want me to send it as basic alphanumeric (data), or you want me to send it as coded (data) to be decoded on the other end?’ It depends on how they want to send it. But the e-transmission is just an electronic means of sending the results. It’s just sending it via the existing platform. For now, what grade of protection is required for that data is what has to be determined by the electoral commission.

What other security considerations are needed to prevent security breaches, including perhaps interception by those with a vested interest?Our national network is highly secure and we’re very proud of what we have done as an industry, so we don’t have any form of interference with any form of communication signals. None at all. Now, when you are sending sensitive information like election results, like is being discussed, our regulator has said the most reliable and guaranteed source, in terms of accuracy and speed, is the 3G network. That is what is being recommended by the regulator.

Do you think e-transmission is an important step towards the realisation of e-voting in the near future?I’m just an operator and I don’t work for the government, neither do I work for the electoral commission. But certainly, if we look at the trends around the world, at some point, this will be an option that will be considered by those managing national elections. In our association, we are non-political and we do not represent any political interest, so we are not able to comment on political issues. In terms of use of the facility, we do believe that communication infrastructure will be one of those infrastructure that will be critical to future elections, whether by way of conducting free and fair elections, delivering election results or by way of managing the election process. We believe that communication will be one of the critical infrastructure that will be required. Even if it is for them to make basic calls—‘What is going on there? How are things going on?’—it’s still relying on communication services. So, we think this is still one of our critical national infrastructure that will be required to manage good elections for the future. Now, the application and use is what will be determined by the electoral commission.

What is the probability of glitches and other technical issues arising in e-transmission?It is not impossible. First, it depends on what kind of data you are sending. It depends on what level of security you want. But our national network is very secure and highly reliable, not just for reasons of e-transmission; in terms of basic daily use, we don’t envisage any breaches, glitches or hitches in service quality. Again, the issue of quality of service is subject to a lot of things. As an industry, we commit to providing the best quality service at all times and at all places, so long as there is coverage.

What would be your recommendation to ensure transparency?Again, I am not able to comment on election matters because we do not have any political interests whatsoever. But our recommendation to all parties is that there is a need to continue to have this conversation. If the regulator considers that there could be a problem in certain areas, my advice would be: ‘Let them look at it, what are those areas of concern and how can we mitigate against those concerns?’ The regulator says it is 3G that is most reliable. Let them have some conversation around that: how can we bring 3G to all places that it is required? I think that is the conversation that should be held at some point. All options are on the table and I think that, either for now or for the future, those discussions have to continue for us to have the best for the country and our industry.

What is your response to the reservations that have been expressed about e-transmission?I think it’s important to follow experts’ opinions, guidance and advice. If the regulator is saying 3G is what is required, do not force them to do anything different from what it is proposing as experts. I say the concerns of stakeholders should be considered. Concerns expressed by stakeholders, particularly as expressed by our regulator and other players, should be considered. That would be my recommendation.

Recently, INEC offices became targets of vandalism and other attacks, which resulted in the destruction of critical electoral materials. Should this be a cause for concern when it comes to e-transmission?We don’t hope that happens because don’t forget that this communication infrastructure does not only support our basic communication, it also supports commerce, banking and finance, aviation, transportation, electricity, and more. If anyone is targeting these infrastructure, you are actually targeting our critical economic infrastructure and we don’t hope that will happen. With the impact on communication service today, you will realise that even electricity and banking services will be impacted, among others. That is why, as an industry, we provide services to all sectors on an equal and non-discriminatory basis. This is why whether it is being used for election results, power transmission, or automated teller machines is of no interest to us as industry players. Ours is to deliver best-in-class services to all persons at all times. Now, your use and mode of application will differ, and we are just available to provide this medium for anyone who wants to use communication infrastructure. This is why, really and truly, this matter of e-transmission is definitely not of interest to us because we provide services on a non-discriminatory basis to all sectors. Just as we are providing services for the banks, aviation sector, airlines, shipping, and so on, the same way we will provide services for the electoral commission when they so require. So, our services are available on an equal basis.

Do you agree with those who believe e-transmission will reduce the cost and time of the electoral process?Cost, I cannot say, because there are many elements that make up cost and you know that: ballot paper, security, transportation, and so on. So, e-transmission reducing cost or not is actually not something that I can talk about. It is those who manage elections that can talk about the cost of managing elections. But when you use communication services like it is in all places, you save on a lot of time. It’s like I want to deliver a letter to you. I can send it to you by text and you read it within seconds (of receiving it). I can send it by post and you will read it within days, weeks or months. So, telecommunication really saves time and we believe that is one big advantage that we bring to bear—the advantage of time and reliability. I may not be able to speak to cost because there are many variables to be considered when we talk about cost of conducting elections and, certainly, I am not capable of speaking about those elements because, first, I’m not experienced in it and I don’t know what all their cost factors are. So, I cannot say that e-transmission will reduce the cost of elections.

As industry players, are you involved in the hearings and other legislative processes on the e-transmission?Our regulator is highly involved and once our regulator is there, we are there. Our regulator, the NCC, is highly involved. Their opinion and guidance supersede whatever thoughts we have. So, the industry is fully represented by the regulator and we are very comfortable about the position of our regulator on this matter.

There has been a lot of criticism of the failure to track bandits and kidnappers. What would you say is the reason for this challenge?Again, that is something that is a bit difficult to comment on because we provide services to everyone on a non-discriminatory basis. We provide information as may be required and as demanded by law. Tracking down those who do bad things to all of us in society is something that is meant for security agencies to do. So, we are not in that field of tracking down people who do bad things. Those who are experts in it are the ones who can speak to and on it. Where our role is required, we play it as provided by law. But certainly, in terms of why they are able or unable to do it is not an area that we can comment about. Still, we provide whatever support is required to keep all of us safe. That’s what we guarantee. Your safety is our safety and my safety is your safety.

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