27 February 2013

Uganda: Telecoms Want SIM-Card Registration Extended

With just hours to the Sim-card registration deadline, the five major telecom operators in the market want the exercise extended for another 12 months, citing a host of issues ranging from clients' apathy to seemingly insurmountable logistic challenges.

The players - MTN, Airtel, Warid, UTL and Orange - though in full support of the exercise in principle, contend that an absence of national identity card and "the stringent conditions" for registration of Sim-cards has made the exercise one of the most expensive anywhere in the world.

In their interface with MPs on the committee on Information and Communication Technology on Tuesday, the operators said they have managed to register 60% of their customer base, save for Orange Telecom, which, according to its legal officer, Doreen Byengoma, has thus far garnered 72%.

"We still think the operation should be extended for one year because it's a Herculean task to collect this kind of data in a country without a national ID," UTL Chief Executive Officer, David Hollidam said, admitting that many mobile phone subscribers still harbor misgivings about what government intends to do with their data.

In what might be a defeat of the very essence of the exercise, all the operators conceded that they have no capacity to verify the authenticity of all data adduced by mobile phone users.

Drawing parallels with other countries where it's operating, Airtel CEO, G.V Somasekhar told MPs that US$4 (about sh1100) needed to register a single client is too expensive.

"Even if telecom operators registered only ten million subscribers, US$40m will be spent on the exercise alone," Somasekhar said, as he appealed for direct government intervention in the process through increased sensitization.

MTN's James Macho noted that telecom business has suffered a significant contraction since the Sim-card registration exercise kicked off a year ago, warning of "chaos" and "further reduction in revenue and tax contribution to the treasury" in case thousands of unregistered subscribers and users of counterfeited handsets are switched off in quick succession.

The operators intend to use the extension for data clean up and verification and registration of the remaining subscribers they labeled "reluctant clients."

MPs Paula Tulyahikayo and Odonga Otto, however, opposed the one year extension, saying unregistered subscribers will "go to sleep once again."

"If you are to be given an extension, it should be three days only. This tendency of bending the rules all the time should stop because it's a manifestation of indiscipline by a few people," Otto said.

There are over 14 million mobile phone subscribers in Uganda shared out between the five telecom operators.

Through the Regulation of Interception of Communications Act 2007, Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) sanctioned the phone registration exercise in an attempt to keep a lid on security threats to the country.

However, the exercise that is expected to end tomorrow (Thursday) has not received as much attention in the country side, as in urban areas.

This has raised the specter of leaving millions of subscribers without communication once the registration window is shut.

But still, UCC has the mandate to extend the deadline. They are set to appear before the parliamentary committee of ICT over the same issue.

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