The Country Coordinator, Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) and former president, Association of Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria (ATCON), Olusola Teniola, in this interview with ADEYEMI ADEPETUN, explains that with fresh investments, and current telecoms infrastructure, electronic transmission of election results remains a possibility.
The National Assembly recently voted for conditional electronic transmission of election results blaming sparse telecommunication infrastructure, as well as slow and poor Internet connectivity. What is your take on this?
Nigeria is ready, and e-voting at its simplest level can be performed using the current 2G technology, and this will suffice for more than 87 per cent of the population where polling stations are located in areas of GSM coverage. Note that anything requiring data transmission that involves heavy data usage will 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, a mixture of fibre and satellite technology can be used to backhaul data that suffices for e-transmission. The access technology to the voting terminals can be a mixture of Wifi, 2G, 3G, or 4G. So, in essence, the technology and expertise exist to build an e-voting platform fit for purpose.
Is there any correlation between electronic transmission of results and smartcard readers?
Yes. The interface to the smartcard readers must be compatible with the mode of transmission required for Wifi, 2G, 3G, or 4G.
The main challenge is the people. 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.
Parts of the country are yet to be covered by telecommunication networks. So, what can be done to transmit election results electronically in this kind of situation?
The hard-to-reach areas, which account for 11 per cent of the entire population can be addressed by moveable INEC vans with transportable communication equipment that can be deployed quickly and moved around to local council headquarters within easy reach of voters. Other solutions over-layed over this can be created as a workaround in time for 2023.
How high are the chances of glitches, or technical issues?
Currently, no system in the world is glitch-free. However, with dry-runs and extensive testing, the number of technical issues can be kept to a minimum.
Should attacks on INEC infrastructure/assets be a source of concern for electronic transmission of results?
The destruction of physical infrastructure is always a possibility and this question should be addressed to INEC to answer in terms of their preparedness.
What advantages are there in electronic transmission regarding cost, accuracy, and time management?
We can only base any assessment on what other countries that have adopted e-voting and re-transmission have experienced. What anything electronic provides is reduced time to results being displayed. Obviously, the system needs to verify the data and ensure that checks and balances are put in place to provide legitimacy of the final results announced.
What is your assessment of the telecoms sector in the last 20 years?
The Nigerian telecommunication sector has grown exponentially and has reached its peak after 20 years in the voice segment of the market, and now about to transition both digitally, and operationally, etc on the way that Nigeria will be engaging and contributing its quota to the digital global world that is now upon us. This year signifies the new dawn of 5G and the emergence of digital solutions built by Nigerians for Nigerians, based on artificial intelligence, augmented reality/mixed reality, and machine learning.
Between policies and regulations, which do you think has impacted the industry the most, in the last two decades?
The Broadband Plans of 2013-2018, and 2020-25 have been the most impactful. At A4AI, we made particular reference to the multi-stakeholder contributions made to formulate the policies and its far-reaching recommendations, to changing the lives of every Nigerian through affordable Internet access. These plans provide the bridge between the voice era and the emerging data era.
Why has the two-decade-old telecoms revolution not seriously impacted financial inclusion in the country? What challenges are slowing down this?
It is clear that telecoms and IT platforms have positively impacted and changed the banking sector in ways and manners that operators in the sector didn’t expect, and to a large degree are unprepared for the fast-changing pace of technological evolution that has hit the sector.
Automation, Fintech, and mobile devices and services have changed the financial landscape, and the key to that has been the telecoms’ revolution and consumer changing habits.
Personalisation of mobile services and the advent of Internet services rendered on a mobile device lends itself more to a telco-driven Digital Financial Services (DFS) model as opposed to a bank-led model. The successes in other jurisdictions speak to the evidence and it’s only a matter of time for this to be the universal model to reach the unbanked. It has just taken policymakers in Nigeria a long time to accept the reality and new norm.
Insecurity is biting harder. With forced NIN acquisition and SIM registration, bandits, terrorists still operate freely. Why has the telecoms revolution not helped out?
The platforms are available, the technology exists, and processes to align these disparate systems are well documented through best practices in other climes. The interaction, coordination, and analytical skills constitute work in progress. The level of diverse capacity and capability is a multi-faceted challenge and pieces of data (NIN) make up just an aspect of the whole pieces required to address the multi-pronged security threats.