24 September 2012

East Africa: Ten Million SIM Cards Yet to Be Registered

MOBILE telecom service providers have registered over six million SIM cards in the first phase of the nationwide exercise in the past six months.

A Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) card is a pertinent hardware for telecommunication.

There are 16 million SIM cards in Uganda, according to the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), the telecom sector regulator.

A research conducted by UCC between July and August found that 40% (6.4 million) of the total number of SIM cards were registered since the exercise was launched on March 1.

The exercise is free of charge. The study sought to ascertain consumers perception, compliance and operator challenges.

"Most customers are aware of the exercise," says Godfrey Mutabaazi, the UCC executive director. "But a significant percentage has not registered largely due to laxity."

Why the exercise?

The registration of SIM cards by all telecom operators is in compliance with the Regulation of the Interception of Communications Act, 2010.

Following a parliamentary endorsement on July 14, 2010, President Yoweri Museveni assented to the bill in September 2010.

The bill, initiated by former security minister Amama Mbabazi (now Prime Minister), provides for confidentiality and restriction on disclosure of information by telecom companies to only a legal cause, such as evidence in court.

The registration is intended to help law enforcement agencies identify SIM card owners, track criminals using phones, curb loss of phones through theft, nuisance/ hate text messages, fraud, threats and inciting violence.

SIM registration is a global trend intended to fight fraud and insecurity peddled through telecommunication.

In effecting the exercise, Uganda, a member of the East African Communications Organisation (EACO), joins Kenya and Tanzania, who have completed the exercise.

Burundi concludes in December, whilst Rwanda is on course. Ghana and Nigeria have also completed the registration.

Considering that Ugandans are yet to have national IDs, the registration of SIM card comes handy, especially with regards to personal information provision as and when needed by the legal and security agencies.


The first phase of the year-long exercise was commissioned on March 1, lasting six months todate.

However, even before this date, telecom operators undertook registration five months earlier.

For example, Airtel led the exercise, starting registration of new SIM cards in August 2011. MTN and Warid joined in January.

Today, all seven operators have undertaken the registration at their service centers across the country.

To register, one needs a passportsize photograph, a valid ID in form of a passport, student ID, voter's card or driver's license and an original Local Council letter.

Foreigners need a passport-size photograph, valid work permit, a valid ID in form of a passport, national ID issued by the parent country or driver's license.

Service providers are required to keep info obtained in a secure data base.

Declining interest in registration, customers' fear of the exercise, attendant costs and provision of identity cards, especially amongst rural folks, is holding back the exercise.

"Some consumers are sensitive to disclosure of certain personal information while registering SIM cards," says Fred Otunnu, the UCC communications and consumer affairs manager.

"But the info will be kept confidential. There is no reason for anyone to be skeptical about disclosing any info."

No deadline extension:

At a joint launch of the second phase of SIM card registration at UCC headquarters in Bugolobi, Otunnu noted that there would be no extension on the March 1, 2013 cut-off-date.

"We do not see any reason why we should extend the (cut-off) date," he says.

"Our target is to have 90% of the customers registered by the cut-off date. The deadline is generous and we should be able to wrap-up the exercise without any problems."

The exercise targets a backlog of unregistered SIM cards, but registration of new SIM cards will go on even after the cut-off date.

A subscriber who fails to beat the dead line will see their SIM card deactivated.

But using the local media, telecom operators will air reminders and send text messages to subscribers' handsets.

"We fully support UCC and the Government in this cause," said David Holliday, the utl managing director.

"When a legal order is provided to us, we will be able to avail court with the time of communication but not the text message or communication as we cannot store them."

Amos Ngabirano, the Police director of ICT, rescinded fears that the exercise is a gimmick by the state to gag free speech and expression.

"At the Uganda Police Force, over 3,000 SIM cards have been registered," he said. "This exercise is aimed at making communication easy and secure.

As the Police, we shall only present evidence as and when a judge handling a case where an individual's SIM card info is needed asks us to."

Ngabirano noted that the terrorists who attacked Kyadondo Rugby Grounds and the Ethiopian Village in Muyenga, killing over 70 people who were watching the 2010 World Cup finals, used GSM technology.

"A terrorist used a SIM card worn in a vest and detonated by someone far away," he said.

"If all SIM cards were registered by then, it would have taken a short time to track them down. We are not targeting terrorists alone, but also fraudsters."

To fast-track registration, UCC has embarked on sensitisation in the second phase of registration by all partners, with operators incorporating SIM card registration messages in all their marketing and advertising campaigns.

Mutabaazi said UCC, in collaboration with the operators, will hold joint out-reaches in major towns and suburbs, starting at the end of October.

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