Electronic transmission: Network providers’ optimism versus lawmakers’ pessimism
Amid discordant tunes regarding the country’s readiness for electronic transmission of election results, key stakeholders in the sector insist that the technology and expertise build an e-voting platform fit for purpose exist in the country. They told ADEYEMI ADEPETUN that in spite of the hullabaloo, no one has, and can technically prove that electronic transmission of results cannot be done.
To ensure a smooth trans-continent trip, there must be an abundance of adequate roads that traverse flatlands and mountainous regions. There must also be ships to take care of the water-leg of the sojourn, while bridges and tunnels, and proper directions constitute a vital part of the mix.
It is in the same vein that adequate telecommunications infrastructure are a sine qua non to ensuring the seamless electronic transmission of election results. Telecommunications infrastructure is a physical medium through which all Internet traffic flows. This includes telephone wires, cables (including submarine cables), satellites, microwaves, and mobile technology such as fifth-generation (5G) mobile networks. Even the standard electric grid can be used to relay Internet traffic utilising power-line technology. Innovative wireless solutions like Internet balloons and drones are also gradually being deployed.
The Internet, therefore, is a giant network connecting devices across geographical regions. Indeed, the information and communications technology (ICT) sector is characterised by rapid technological changes, and by the convergence of technological platforms for telecommunications, information delivery, broadcasting and computing, which are key enablers for the digital economy.
The deployment of common broadband, including through fixed and mobile technology and network infrastructures for multiple telecommunication services and applications, and the evolution to all IP-based wireless and wired future networks (NGNs and their evolutions), has opened up opportunities, especially for developing countries.
The relevance and advancement of technology in every sphere of life cannot be overemphasised. Even in politics, especially in advanced countries, technology has proven relevant as it was central to the last United States of America elections, which brought President Joe Biden to power. Specifically, technology-facilitated and aided the transmission of results electronically.
With technology evolving at the speed of light, countries have a lot more to gain than lose when they deploy technology in the management of their electoral processes to ensure impeccable outcomes.
According to aceproject.org, countries that have implemented electronic voting include Brazil, Venezuela, Paraguay, Belgium, Spain, Canada, Switzerland, Bhutan, Germany, India, The Netherlands, and Panama. Interestingly,
Interestingly, while Nigeria is listed on the platform among the countries that have implemented electronic voting, the planned electronic transmission of election results was heavily jolted by the conditional approval granted by the National Assembly (NASS) during the passage of the amended Electoral Act.
The NASS had hinged its decision on claims by the Nigeria Communications Commission (NCC) that a reasonable part of the country was without basic telephony services.
Indeed, despite the over $75b investment in the telecoms sector in the last 20 years, the NCC maintains that there are still some 115 access gaps (villages, areas and locations) where about 25 million people still do not have access to any form of telephony services. The agency equally maintained that it cannot guarantee the successful electronic transmission of election results.
NCC’s Executive Commissioner (Stakeholder Management), Adeleke Adewolu, in his submission during the NASS’s appearance said less than half of polling units in the country have the needed network coverage for the transmission of election results.
His counterpart in charge of technical services, Ubale Maska, corroborated this by saying based on the survey that the NCC conducted in 2018, about 50.3 per cent of the 109, 000 polling units out of the 119, 000 polling units have 3G network facilities. Others, he noted, are with a 2G network, while some are without coverage as of 2018.
Status of Telecoms Infrastructure
WITH investment in the sector put at over $75b investment, the country’s teledensity surprisingly plummeted from 104.89 per cent in January to 98.28 per cent as at the end of the first half of 2021.
Teledensity is the number of telephone connections for every hundred individuals living within an area. It varies widely across nations and also between urban and rural areas within a country. Telephone density has a significant correlation with the per capita GDP of the area. It is also used as an indicator of the purchasing power of the country’s middle class or specific region.
Statistics from the NCC showed that a total of 33, 832 towers were recorded from mobile and fixed operators, as well as collocation and infrastructure companies as of 2020. The operators also reported a total number of 36, 998 base stations from 34, 033 in 2019 across all states of the federation, representing an increase of 8.7 per cent from the previous year.
Microwave coverage also declined from 302, 036km in 2019 to 289, 720.99km as of 2020. This covered the mobile, fixed and other operators. Some operators recorded a decrease in the microwave coverage due to the decommissioning of backbone microwave links to accommodate increased and higher volumes of traffic. Fibre optics deployment stood at 94, 547.82km (terrestrial fibre & submarine cable) as of December 2020.
Further checks revealed that the top five states with the highest number of towers are Lagos, Ogun, Oyo, Rivers and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), while states with the least number of base stations are Jigawa, Ebonyi, Gombe, Yobe and Zamfara.
Specifically, as of 2020, Lagos had 5, 686 towers; Ogun 1, 834; Oyo 1, 761; Rivers 1, 720, FCT 1, 495 and Edo 1, 270; Jigawa 329; Ebonyi 311; Gombe 295; Yobe 248, and Zamfara 248.
As of December 2020, the total on land fibre deployment was 43, 898.8km as against 43, 898.10 km in 2019. The on-land fibre deployment as per operators are MTN – 14, 612km; Glo 13, 306km; Airtel – 11, 151km; EMTS 4, 650km and Ntel – 180km.
By the end of last year, the total submarine fibre deployment in kilometre was 25,128.3km as against 24, 729.3km in the year 2019. This is an increase of 1.36 per cent within the year under consideration. The fibre deployment by four mobile operators includes MTN-15, 244km; Glo 9, 800km; Airtel 14km and Ntel 70km.
In terms of fibre optics deployment, findings showed that as of last December, MTN had deployed 14, 612km on land, and 15, 244km submarine fibre optics; Globacom deployed 13, 306km on land, and 9, 800km submarine fibre optics; 21st Century deployed 8, 050km on land and 33km fibre optics, while ipNX deployed 1, 956km on land fibre optics. This makes an aggregate of 37, 924km of on-land fibre optics deployed as at 2020. This signifies a decline of 27.89 per cent from the 52, 589km deployed in 2019.
Similarly, an aggregate of 25, 077km submarine fibre optics was deployed by MTN, Globacom, 21st Century and ipNX during the period under review. It signifies a 154.4 per cent gross increase from the 9, 856km recorded in 2019.
Across the six geopolitical zones, the NCC licensed 61 Internet Service Providers (ISPs), which have a total of 1409 Point of Presence (PoPs). A PoP is the access point provided by ISPs and used to measure each ISPs size or growth rate. Spectranet had the largest number – 629 PoPs, Tizetti is next with 117, while Inq. Digital Nigeria has 90.
It is noteworthy to mention that the total number of satellite subscriptions has increased over the period from 2, 657 subscriptions in December 2019, to 3, 238 subscriptions in 2020, indicating an increase of 21 per cent in the number of satellite subscriptions.
Is Nigeria Ready For e-Voting?
AFTER cursory look at the state of infrastructure and investments in the sector thus far, the country’s coordinator, Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), Olusola Teniola, concluded that Nigeria is ready for the electronic transmission, adding that e-voting at its simplest level can be performed using the current 2G technology, and will suffice for more than 87 per cent of the population where polling stations are located in areas of GSM coverage.
He explained that anything requiring data transmission that involves heavy data usage would be limited by EDGE and 3G technology. “So the best is to keep things very simple and send the minimum amount of data that can verify a citizen’s vote. The plan under the Nigerian National Broadband Plan 2020-25 is for there to be 90 per cent 4G coverage and we have an operator that has achieved 60 per cent coverage on its own network. This is very encouraging as 4G is much better than 3G.
“So, in addition to 4G and a mixture of fibre, satellite technology can be used to backhaul data that suffices for e-transmission. The access technology to the voting terminals can also be a mixture of Wifi, 2G, 3G or 4G. So, in essence, the technology exists, and the expertise exists to build an e-voting platform fit for purpose.”
Teniola, who averred that the main challenge is people, explained that the system expects correct data to be inputted and that there are minimal human interventions. “Once configured, cloud technology can be used to back up and act as a redundant infrastructure to ensure that interruptions are reduced to the barest minimum. Voter awareness is key and critical to the success of adoption and here is where the political class can get involved in engaging their supporters. Any gaps can be rectified in time for 2023.”
Electronic Transmission Is Not Magic
WHILE agreeing with Teniola’s position, the Chairman, Mobile Software Solution Nigeria, Chris Uwaje, said the term garbage-in-garbage-out analogy has been with humanity since the advent of the computer revolution.
He said the threshold of that analogy resides in the trustworthiness and integrity of data in electronic data processing systems, governed by software and telecoms infrastructure. “Hence, what we should interrogate are, firstly, do we have the digital infrastructure, software, and knowhow to transmit election data? Secondly, can it be done in Nigeria?”
Uwaje, a former president of the Institute of Software Practitioners of Nigeria (ISPON), said the answer to the above questions is yes.
According to him, no one has, and can technically prove that it cannot be done. “Indeed, over 90 per cent of the makeup of our election data is digital. Therefore, with trustworthiness, it can be done effectively. Nigerians transmit many billions of digital datasets hourly, every day.
“Who is afraid of electronic data transmission? Indeed, Nigeria has a huge telecoms infrastructure with manageable latency issues. The margin of error should be below 1.5 to 2.5 per cent. Electronic transmission is not magic as we are made to understand. Currently, large amounts of data – including heavy images are being transmitted from the moon and mars to planet earth without problems,” he stated.
Uwaje said the process is simply defined as any form of communication not directly involving the physical transmission of paper that creates a record that may be retained, retrieved and reviewed by a recipient.
According to him, it can, therefore, be directly and easily reproduced in paper form by a recipient at the other end, through an automated process.
He stressed that with the country’s population projected to be 400 million by 2050, “now is the time to master our digital destiny.”
Network Infrastructure Can Be Upgraded To Boost Transmission
FOR Chairman, Association of Licensed Telecoms Operators of Nigeria (ALTON), Gbenga Adebayo, the current infrastructure in the sector can be upgraded for electronic transmission of poll results in 12 months.
Adebayo said the NCC has said that 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 with minimal latency, and reliability.
He also pointed out that where added interfaces are required, either to compress or encrypt the information for better security, it is easier to do that on 3G networks than it is on 2G.
According to him, the requirement would be to have sites that are covering areas where polling centres have been upgraded to 3G, and this will be to increase the backbone capacity of affected sites.
He added that this 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 the affected locations.
Adebayo further added that the task is to increase the transmission capacity to those sites and thereafter upgrade the elements that deliver last-mile services from 2G to 3G.
The ALTON chairman, who declined to estimate the cost for upgrades “because of a number of variables,” noted that some of the variables include the distance of the sites to the backbone.
“In some cases, it could be a few kilometres, it could also be several hundred or tens of hundreds of kilometres. In the second instance, it depends on the capacity of the radios that are 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 the turnaround time for the delivery.”
Adebayo said re-transmission of results is not as complex as being made to look, explained: “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 sending you a text message instead of a letter. That is actually what 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,” he stressed.
IT would be recalled that in March 2018, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), and the NCC met with MTN, Airtel, Globacom and 9Mobile to discuss “technology requirements for the electronic transmission of results (ETR) and its implications.”
The four mobile operators together account for virtually all of Nigeria’s mobile telephone networks. After the meeting, the consensus reached by all operators was that “the requirement for the ETR proposed by INEC is practicable.”
At the meeting, it was also resolved that “the solution that the INEC wants to deploy is possible, bearing in mind the cost implication related to network coverage, especially in the remote areas where INEC have PUs and WCCs.”