Data on the performance of the automated election system employed shows that only about 92 percent of election returns were transmitted during the 2010 elections and only about 73% in the 2013 elections. The AES used in both elections relied on the mobile phone infrastructure of the two telecommunications giants.
The mobile phone infrastructure was augmented with satellite communications through the use of broadband global access network terminals (BGAN) to cover areas where the mobile phone infrastructure did not have coverage.
Transmission failures can occur for various reasons. For one, the modem used could have failed. Weak or absent signal is another reason. The terrain and the location of the voting center are also among the reasons why transmission could fail. Even the positioning of the PCOS machine inside the voting precinct is a factor to consider. In highly urbanized areas, voting centers may be surrounded by tall buildings making it difficult to transmit. Not all was rosy with BGAN terminals. If the voting center is located in a valley, the satellite may actually be below the mountain ridge.
A teacher-friend who served as a member of the Board of Election Inspectors at a school in the Quiapo district narrated her experience, thus: “We were all happy that the counting of votes and the printing of election returns were completed in such a short time. By 9:00 pm, we were all ready to transmit. The problem was there was no signal in our precinct and there was only one area in the school grounds with respectable signal. We shared a modem. We had problems and had to call a technician for assistance. We had to take turns and some of us ended up waiting until about 3:00 am the day after election day.”
This is one area that the Commission on Elections (Comelec) should have already addressed as it prepares for the 2016 elections. But it is grappling with the development of the terms of reference for the transmission service.
Perhaps the Comelec can engage consultants with the requisite telecommunications expertise.
In an email to the Comelec Advisory Council, I suggested tapping the assistance of PETEF whose membership includes, among others, telecommunications experts who can help in the design and implementation of an infrastructure that will aggregate the services of the telecommunications duopoly. They can assist in identifying the necessary equipment and support services which the Comelec can then bid out.
Among the first things that the Comelec can also do is to conduct a nationwide survey of telecommunications coverage. It can provide the two telecommunications giants a list of the voting centers and ask them to confirm signal coverage in the areas where the voting centers are. The Comelec can also ask its Election Officers in the various cities and municipalities to conduct an on-ground survey to determine if there is actual cell phone coverage in the areas where the voting centers are located. The survey should also include the type of building structures (wooden or concrete), terrain (flat or mountainous, etc.), the presence of buildings in the immediate vicinity, and the presence of other types of telecommunications services that can be used.
The survey suggestion is nothing new. Part of the preparations for Namfrel’s quick count operations is conducting an on the ground survey of all means of communication available nationwide—including some remote areas. The survey was done by Namfrel volunteers.
The survey results may be used for planning purposes. For one, it will enable the Comelec to identify areas where there is no cell phone coverage and from there plan for alternatives.
Talking of alternative technologies for areas outside the covered areas by the two telecommunications giants, satellite communications may be used.
Portable cell sites can be deployed and integrated with the duopoly’s cell phone infrastructure. Portable cell sites can actually be assembled locally using parts available in electronic shops. It can be operated using open source software.
Presently, the Department of Science and Technology and the Information and Communications Technology Office are testing an infrastructure called TV Whitespace in Bohol. The test is yielding promising results and deployment is now being planned for the provinces of Bulacan and Cavite.
IP radios also provide another alternative.
Even the short message service, a functionality available in mobile phones, can be used to transmit election results. Of course, this will require the use of smart phones and it has to be properly programmed to carry the election results in a secure manner.
Let’s face IT. A whole range of technology options for election results transmission is available. What needs to be done is (1) conduct a detailed study of the requirements, (2) plan and design what the election results transmission infrastructure will look like, and (3) identify and implement the appropriate technologies to be used.