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From Port Harcourt to the port city of Bristol: in conversation with Hilary Frank-Ito

Milan Perera interviews Hilary Frank-Ito, who is completing a PhD in telecommunications engineering at Bristol, and investigates the journey that brought him to this point.

By Milan Perera, Arts Critic Columnist

Milan Perera interviews Hilary Frank-Ito, who is completing a PhD in telecommunications engineering at Bristol, and investigates the journey that brought him to this point.

When I met him for our interview in the Merchant Venturers Building at the Department of Engineering, he was gazing outside the window at the gentle autumnal rain dropping on the red and yellow foliage underneath. When he saw me, he smiled and said, ‘I’m missing cricket already’, although it was just three weeks after the end of the cricket season.

Hilary Frank-Ito is completing his PhD in 5G Technology. He is in the final year of his dissertation which according to him has been a ‘marathon’. He is a member of HPN (High-Performance Networks), which is part of the Smart Internet Lab in the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at the University of Bristol. I had to ask him to put that down on a piece of paper as it sounded like a strange tongue to my Humanities sensibilities.

Epigram / Milan Perera

I put to him bluntly, ‘Why engineering?’ and ‘Why Bristol?’ He sat down and said, ‘Have you got time? It’s quite a long story.’

The story begins in the 80s in the port city of Port Harcourt in southern Nigeria. ‘As a child I was fascinated as to how human voice could travel through a wire. I know it sounds so naïve as a grown up but that was what fired my imagination about the phenomenon of telecommunication’, he told me.

Although there was no telephone in his home, one day he plucked up the courage to ask a relative who had the luxury of owning a telephone, ‘Can I speak to the phone?’ He ended up ringing a local radio station and to his amazement there was a person at the other end! It was a Damascene moment which would define his future.

After finishing his Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from the University of Port Harcourt, Frank-Ito chose Oxford Brookes University to complete his Master’s Degree in ‘Mobile and High-Speed Telecommunication Networks’. When I asked him what prompted him to go to Oxford Brookes, he commented that it was one of the young institutions which was determined to punch above its weight and challenge the established universities, especially in Science & Technology.

Epigram / Milan Perera

While finishing his Master’s degree he travelled the country to catch a glimpse of the UK. He wanted to visit Bristol as he had heard a lot about the lively cosmopolitan nature and the burgeoning art and entertainment scene. After finishing his Master’s degree in 2014, he took up a teaching post at a polytechnic institute in Port Harcourt, but Bristol was never far from his thoughts.

To receive the necessary expertise and experience in telecommunication and to make a meaningful contribution to the field it felt incumbent on him to do further studies. But where? Frank-Ito wanted somewhere he could explore and enjoy while completing his Doctorate. And Bristol was the natural choice!

His research seeks to formulate techno-economic models in support of booting ROI (Return of Investment) for enterprises in deploying private 5G Networks, identify approaches to optimise network resources in private 5G Networks through network classification and propose monitoring schemes for multi-domain private 5G Networks.

When I asked him the significance of his studies to everyday life, he elaborated, ‘the arrival of 5G Networks brings huge possibilities in wireless network deployment. With superior capability to support eMBB (Enhanced Mobile Broadband), mMTC (Massive Machine-Type Communications) and URLLC (Ultra-Reliable Low-Latency Communications), diverse use cases are emerging, resulting in innovative approaches to enterprise solutions.’

As a self-professed cricket fanatic, he was looking for a team. And he struck gold with Academicals Cricket Club where he found a group of academics ranging from university professors to postgraduate students who shared a passion for cricket. Not stopping with one university-based cricket team, he joined another one, Staff Cricket Club.

'I can't tell you how much I love cricket' | Hilary Frank-Ito

‘I can’t tell you how much I love cricket,’ there was such a note of gladness in his voice that the overcast evening suddenly seemed golden. ‘I used to play on concrete pitches when I was in Nigeria, but it felt nice to play on ‘proper’ cricket pitches here.’

Frank-Ito firmly believes in the power of education as it helps to dispel misinformation and ignorance. When the world came to a halt due to Covid-19, he made himself available to be interviewed, mainly by radio stations of his native Nigeria. The pandemic proved to be a fertile loom for conspiracy theories. Instead of rolling his eyes when he heard the misinformation that 5G technology is ‘responsible for the transmission of Covid-19’, he gently but assertively corrected the misinformation on radio.

When I asked about his long-term ambition as an engineer, he commented that he would like to see an era where coding becomes a mainstream activity, just the way we use smartphones.

When I was about to take my leave, he told me of his intention in taking part in the activities of the Commonwealth Society of Bristol hoping he could make a positive contribution. I have no reason to believe otherwise.

Featured image: Hilary Frank-Ito