Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Nigeria - Regulator has pushed for registration of SIM cards, but this is proving not to have been effective

[daily independent] Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) last week appointed seven consultant partners to register all the 69 million or more SIM cards of mobile phone subscribers nationwide. The consultants, including Chams, SW Global and PNN, are certainly aware of the high risk contract they signed in Abuja. But questions persist about whether or not their ad hoc staff, who will do the actual legwork, would be trustworthy and diligent about it.

NCC has a towering reputation as industry regulator. But it has descended into the implementors' arena alongside the telephone operators (telcos). Hardly can one predict the consequences. Soon, NCC, the consultants and their staff will have to answer police investigators' questions should any crime be committed with a fakely-registered SIM card. That is, even if a crooked staff of the telcos registered the number fraudulently!

NCC's Executive Vice Chairman Eugene Juwah explained at takeoff that NCC wants to fast-track the registration initiated by the telcos around April 1, last year. So far, they registered 11 million active subscribers out of 86,310,704. It wants to register all within six months.

Certainly, it is a faux pas! NCC has its Head Office in Abuja, plus regional offices in Kano, Enugu, Lagos, Ibadan and Port Harcourt. They cannot register the SIM cards. Hence engagement of consultants. It would either import new laptops and webcams attached or hire the DDC laptops from Prof. Attahiru Jega's INEC for the consultants' staff.

On paper, it sounds great. But wait! One day, police investigators trailing kidnappers demanding ransom in Abia State to SIM cards registered in Ogun State, find that it belonged to a crippled, primary school pupil who died six months previously! Of course, the criminals, always better organised than security agencies, could bribe, cajole or browbeat an ad hoc staff to register the SIM with the unsuspecting pupil's biometric data for the price of sweets! Then the blame game starts between NCC and its consultants versus the telcos over whodunnit! And of course the relations of the dead pupil would sue NCC for stealing his biometric data sold to the criminals!

As at November, last year, the telcos had 86.3m active subscribers in a total of 107.6m lines. Eleven million were registered; so, about 75.3m more subscribers are yet to be registered. NCC believes it has a magic formula. I wish it the best of luck.

The fact is, the telcos are not lacking in their duty. After all, it took me less than two minutes to register with Etisalat in Lagos. And some GSM companies are doing wayside registration with laptops under umbrellas in Lagos. But the registration of my second SIM, Airtel, is pending. Both lines are perfect. But I have to register two SIMs at different centres. Yet one of them, Etisalat, serves me perfectly.

My satisfaction with Etisalat comes from one-touch dialling and call completion, no drop call, accurate charges for calls on either Easy Starter or EasyLife tariff, smooth Internet access by GPRS or EasyNet bundle. Best of all, Etisalat alerts me if a Stone Age security zombi - fake or genuine - connects an illegal tapping device to my line.

Contrarily, other networks' imps connected the zombis' equipment to my phone, interrupted calls, called my friends to tell them rubbish, or worst of all, wrecked my phone when they wore their primitive, nuisance zombis' coats.

Meanwhile, some subscribers own up to four phones, a habit from the days when networks were too bad for a call. So, multiple phones were a necessity, hardly status symbols.

So, the 69m subscribers NCC is set to register may be as few as 60 percent of that number. What is lacking about the programme is adequate publicity. And subscribers' reluctance to make time for it. NCC's intervention has one advantage. The ad hoc staff will visit and register big men in their houses to shunt the reluctance. Houseboys cannot register SIMs for their Oga.

Mind you, my reluctance was not out of spite. This is the era of identity theft worldwide. I have no inclination to leave my inalterable biometric identity on the private telcos' databank.

And that was the first question I asked Etisalat officials at its Experience Centre: is my biometric data safe in their database? They explained that NCC currently warehouses the data for National Identity Management Commission. Etisalat had no data-base for the bio-data. Two minutes later, the registration was over - seamless, smooth, hitch-free.

However, the reluctant subscribers are few compared to the vast majority who are unaware of the exercise. Unfortunately, kidnappers and other criminals who make phone threat calls are not the big Ogas. More probably, they are among the riffraff majority, which makes it indispensable to register them at all cost. But as tax collectors say, it always costs more to reach those criminal few evaders than the majority voluntary payers.

So, NCC should rather provide publicity support for the telcos, co-ordinate them to rotate on zonal basis and hold them responsible if anyone registers fake lines. Each consultant supervises the zonal registration by the telcos at their own expense. One month of intensive registration per zone adds up neatly to six months to cover the entire country. NCC should provide saturation media coverage, especially on local radio stations.

Someone suggested the most effective way to get everyone to register is to set the deadline for telcos to register the willing. At its expiry, all unregistered SIMs, and new ones, should be rendered Receive-Only lines.

The subscribers want to make calls, the telcos want to make money. The telcos would use their disembodied recordings to remind Receive-Only subscribers to register their SIMs. Moreover, with all new SIMs on Receive-Only, it makes no difference if SIM cards were sold in supermarkets, at airport arrivals, from telcos or on the pavements - with no restrictions.

In fact, to make it easy on multiple SIM users, NCC must coordinate such that one registration will be valid for all numbers on other networks, too. After all, if INEC's registration is accurate, every Nigerian above 18 years has his biometric data on NIMC database. So, only the young ones and foreigners really need to register afresh. Multiple registrations are redundant in NIMC database.

This way, NCC would remain the reputable regulator atop its Olympus mount. As the sages say, if a reputable man descends to fight riffraff in the sewerage, he should not complain if disreputable riffraff sully him with muddy water. Then, if the police ask how it happened that the dead, crippled primary school pupil was demanding kidnap ransom, NCC knows which telcom to hold responsible without prevarications, lies and half-truths!

Communications Commission's Faux Pas With SIM Registration

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