Recently there has been news that a single internet/telecom gateway (SIG, which will be liberally used as a noun throughout this article) is being proposed for Namibia by our government. This article will explore the notion of a gateway and its pros and cons.
How Gateways Work:
Let us briefly examine how Namibia’s voice/data communication networks interact with the global community. We communicate domestically and with entities outside of Namibia’s border largely through the following means:
- Phone calls,
- WhatsApp messages & calls,
- Skype calls,
- Any other video chats/calls and
- Internet browsing data (Facebook, watching movies online, Google searches etc.)
Most of us are familiar with the fact that to access these services and to start doing any of the above-mentioned things as an action, you would need a relevant device (e.g. computer, cellphone/smartphone) and a contract with a Telecoms operator (Pre-paid SIM card or contract based agreement). But let us briefly focus on what happens when you are on the receiving end of one or several of the above methods of communication.
Let us say somebody is calling your Telecom 085 number from Zimbabwe on a mobile phone that has a SIM card issued by their 2nd largest network which is called Telecel. How does that phone call reach you when Telecel does not have a direct cable link or agreement with Telecom Namibia to access each other’s networks?
Enter the gateway. Think of a gateway as a security door to a communication network, much like the security apparatus when you enter the lobby of an office building; you will need to have a good reason to get into the offices and even then, you must meet and follow the security protocol set by the office to actually get in (e.g. no weapons, dress code etc.). Similarly, gateways provide a point of interface into a network with certain technical protocols that must be met if voice/data information is to flow into or out of said network.
Telecoms tend to operate their own gateways but there are also non-telecom gateway operators that provide the service of connecting global networks to one another, thereby allowing users of networks in one country to communicate with user of a network in another.
With the above in mind, the scenario follows that the call originating from Zimbabwe is routed from Telecel’s gateway to a ‘global switching gateway’, a non-telecom gateway operator as described, which then attempts to find the fastest and cheapest route between the vast global networks to relay the call to Telecom Namibia’s gateway so that you may receive it. If, for example, the fastest way happens to be through a Telecom in Japan because the US/Yen exchange rate favors the cost of this route at that specific moment in date and time, then that is how that call will be routed. Starting in Zimbabwe, going to Japan and ending up in Namibia.
You may also imagine the opposite of this example, where you are initiating the call, a query on the Internet or sending a WhatsApp message; the data travels out from your device to its recipient in much the same way.
In a streamlined nutshell, this is in fact the model agreed to between the Communications Regulatory Association of Namibia (CRAN) and our 3 national telecoms operators MTC Namibia, Telecom Namibia and Paratus Telecom so that they may deliver their services to us. This model allows for our telecoms to attempt at delivering the most competitive pricing for sending and receiving voice/data communications into and out of Namibia for their customers. This model also has the added benefit of providing a certain level of redundancy for Namibian communications, as there are multiple points of connection within the country between telecoms and to the outside world. If, for example, Telecom Namibia’s gateway went under during a national disaster such as an severe earthquake or flooding, MTC’s and Paratus Telecom’s gateways would be able to pick up some of the slack and allow for the life and death flow of vital communication channels to stay open.
Why an SIG? :
A Single Internet/Telecoms Gateway would theoretically force all voice/data communications in Namibia through a single gateway effectively making it a choke point and will stifle competitiveness since one company will set the price of how voice/data communications are sent into and out of Namibia. The company that would set up the SIG would become the de-facto telecom monopoly in Namibia as all current telecoms will have to pay for and use its gateway for access to the outside world.
If an SIG was established, it would likely become an SOE or something similar as, by nature, it reports to and is directed by government. Its announcement would most likely have an immediate negative effect on Namibia’s status with global competitiveness watchdogs. Considering the cost of the technology involved, it would easily run into the billions of Namibia dollars to initially set up and maintain every year. The Namibian taxpayer will for a great part most likely burden this cost.
Why might an SIG be needed? There are not many reasons that warrant an SIG (as evidenced by the fact that only Laos, Cuba, Sierra Leone and Venezuela have one set up) and, in many ways the very idea itself is obsolete, but let us attempt to examine a few.
- Reason 1: A government might have economic concerns about tracking usage of its telecoms networks more accurately to ensure correct reporting and management of revenue as, theoretically, they would be able to observe all communications streams in a country with an SIG. Telecoms voice call revenue has, in the past, traditionally been a key addition to the coffers of governments around the world although currently evolving technologies in how data/voice services are delivered and monitored have drastically lowered the margins of these streams in the past two decades for every nation.
It is much cheaper for a telecom to send and receive its voice call traffic over the Internet than to use the older copper telephony network or other physical cable lines that, usually being part of a nations infrastructure, would be rented out to telecoms at cost. In order to maximize their own profits, a telecoms operator might lease access to a cheaper internet based gateway or ‘grey route’ to route their voice call traffic instead of using the national infrastructure built by a government meaning less revenue for said government. In such cases, governments might use the SIG to keep a closer eye on the telecoms to ensure they are playing by whatever rules and policies that may have been established but it is worth noting that there is no evidence of this issue being a major problem in Namibia at all.
- Reason 2: To enable for the surveillance of citizenry and inhabitants, the ability to restrict access to certain voice/data communications channels and content on the basis of national security and to have an ‘off/on kill-switch’ for the internet/telephony networks nationwide.
Both of these reasons have severe policy and technologically related setbacks in being valid, as communications technology is rapidly changing how and what we connect to electronic communications networks. There are fairly advanced technological trends that have yet to reach Namibia’s shores that will drastically change the world over the next 20 years such as the ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) that is looking to connect even everyday mundane household objects such as your underwear to the Internet.
We should note that of the countries listed, where an SIG is installed, given their known models of governance, the 2nd reason is most likely their motivation for installation. Other countries including Sudan, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Ethiopia and others instead of employing an SIG, use other methods such as simply directing their telecoms to restrict access to or shut down data/voice services.
For the first reason where a government is concerned about telecoms revenue management and is looking to bolster earnings, the very idea of an SIG is self-defeating as if one were to actually be implemented; telecoms will have their hands tied in their ability to obtain best pricing for accessing global gateways as the price will be artificially fixed by the company that installs the SIG.
There is no tenable position that can maintain that the cost to our national telecoms to access global gateways would not increase in this situation. This means they will have less ability to provide flexible pricing on their products (e.g. Aweh and Jiva, costs of calls per minute) as they only have one gateway supplier. Such a situation would likely to lead to pricing and regulatory issues of the kind which are currently prompting Sierra Leone to liberalize and deregulate it’s own single telecoms gateway.
Another major drawback is that as global communication technology permeates deeper into human societies, given the explosive global democratization of communication technology over the last 40 years, it is highly unlikely that telecoms and governments will be the sole purveyors of communication enabling platforms and technology in the very near future. For example Google and Facebook have both invested hundreds of millions in USD into research on ambitious projects to globally beam Internet access down from high-altitude weather balloons and a global network of drones, respectively. Successful pilot projects have already been conducted in many parts of the world and there is nothing to suggest that these projects will not be actively deployed in many parts of the world, including here in Namibia, in less than 2-3 years.
Given that there is currently no international agreement on the vertical extent of sovereign national airspace (e.g. how far up in the sky does the reach of Namibian law go?), in the event when Google and Facebook inform their users that they can receive free Wi-Fi beamed down from drones and balloons flying in the stratosphere, the proposed SIG starts to look very futile indeed as that would practically turn everyone’s devices, be it a smartphone or computer, into a gateway over which a proposed SIG will have no control or ability to monitor. In such an event, it is very hard to imagine Namibian or any other national authorities having any control over people’s preference to access their voice/data services for free or by preferred method.
Let us now examine the second reason for installing a SIG, national security concerns. One might easily think of China as an example of a single gateway country but that would be factually incorrect. Rather than funneling all voice/data communication through a single gateway, China uses a complex set of monitoring tools and devices to survey it’s network traffic and control access to voice/data content as they see fit at their 7-8 estimated international gateways. China does not only posses the ability to manufacture the relevant technical components that allow for a complex system of voice/data communications access control but also the human expertise to somewhat counter new system security lapses caused by new developments in technology. With its population of over a billion people, it is easy to imagine that social cohesion is a major factor in how the Chinese government rationalizes controlling global voice/data communication network access to its population. It would be hard though to argue for such a position in Namibia.
It would also be untenable to imply that there is a relevant immediate existential threat to the national stability of Namibia, and even then it’s more doubtful that such a threat can, in any way, be addressed by an SIG. Unlike China, Namibia does not posses the means to manufacture the components needed to maintain nor the adequate human resources to interpret the analytical data produced by an SIG so these duties would immediately have to be outsourced to foreign entities.
In such a case, rather than being a deterrent to a threat, the SIG would become the threat itself, as our national communications are de-facto compromised by the entities that build the SIG and whomever they are linked to. Lacking the skilled local personnel to adequately analyze the data received and the fact that the methods devised by the SIG system to create such data are not created in Namibia or subject to its IP and patent laws, regardless of how the business logic will attempt to frame it, the system will require consultants or some middleman process to interpret the data for our government and its defense entities leaving us open to conventional ‘man-in-the-middle’ counterintelligence attacks where national policy and sensitive national communiqués are open to influence by outside agents.
An SIG may be able to intercept a GSM voice call made on a cellphone using 2G technology (commonly known as ‘torch phones’) but modern popular tools for global communications such as WhatsApp, iMessage, Skype et al now use end-to-end encryption which is, for all practical purposes, impossible to decrypt. Unless the government controlling the SIG blocks a service like Facebook or WhatsApp wholesale or shuts down the internet totally with a so called ‘kill switch’, they have no actual ability through the SIG to examine what is actually in the conversations being held on those platforms.
It is also worth noting that 3G/4G/LTE voice/data technology is mostly Internet based and uses similar encryption models. Close to 50% of Namibians now use 3G/4G/LTE devices with that percentage only growing annually, as smartphones/devices get cheaper. Attempts to decrypt those kinds of communications also face severe difficulties. Namibia is one of the first African countries planning on implementing a 5G network, in that eventuality; an SIG would make no technical sense at all.
Further on the issue of security is that an SIG becomes an even greater threat to Namibia’s national stability if a capable hacking outfit were to find vulnerability in its access system and is able to take control of the ‘kill-switch’ and hold our government and national communications at ransom.
Having discussed some of the reasons arguing for an SIG, it is noticeable that the very idea of an SIG tends to become self-defeating in today’s context as it’s based on obsolete risk scenario modeling and technology. Another obvious flaw is that an SIG stands in direct opposition to much of current national policy. The drive for truly Universal Access to digital services that the Namibian government has established for itself, freedom of information for Namibians on all media platforms, the ‘always online’ e-Governance platform implementation plans, robust emergency response services and disaster management (which requires multiple redundant nodes of communication to be effective), digital delivery of state controlled media broadcasts and making our communications market sector more competitive cannot be reconciled with the notion of an SIG.
Even where it can be argued that these widely disparaging ideas can be implemented side by side, then the strain of the cost that this exercise would put on the Namibian economy cannot be justified especially in our current economic climate. It must be stressed that in all reasonably foreseeable scenarios, an SIG will have no effective use in 2-3 years given the trajectory of development in communications technology. If security is a concern, and by all means it should be, then monies would be more effectively spent by training Namibians and enabling them to understand and develop cutting edge electronic security technologies. There are also much more cost effective solutions than an SIG to tackle modern electronic security and surveillance.
Arguably Namibia’s current largest national threat to stability is the fact that there are no laws around electronic transmissions, transactions and cybercrime in an increasingly ‘digital first’ world. Namibia’s digital infrastructure is regularly used as a platform to launch hacking attacks around the globe and we have no current ability to prosecute those responsible if we can catch them. In the event that a Namibian nationals digital identity is stolen and then linked to a serious crime such as a terror attack, Namibia currently has no recourse to defend such citizens. This is a much larger threat than anything an SIG can protect against.
Bluntly put, a SIG is a very bad idea on all fronts except for the pockets of its private company shareholders.
By Tshuutheni Emvula Founder of The TechGuy