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The Day Your SIM Card Was Not Switched Off

By Pamela Kiria, I-Network.

“On 1st March, 2013 business in Uganda came to a standstill as all unregistered local SIM cards were switched off.” Wait a minute! Scratch that! On 1st March, 2013 it was business as usual in Uganda as the SIM card registration deadline was extended! After much anticipation, panic and lobbying, Uganda Communication Commission (UCC) finally pushed the SIM card registration deadline to 31st May, 2013.

SIM is an abbreviation for Subscriber Identity Module. A SIM card gives you access to use the service of a telecom company. It also stores information on your phone, like contact numbers and configuration settings. SIM card registration involves filling a form with one's number(s) and bio-data along with a passport photo and a photo copy of a valid ID (as listed by UCC). This exercise is being carried out by each of the telecommunication companies. By dialling *197# one is able to verify whether or not their SIM card has been successfully registered.

The law that requires SIM card registration in known as “the Regulation of Interception of Communication Bill,” It was first tabled in 2007 by the then Security Minister Amama Mbabazi and passed by the Ugandan Parliament in 2010. The bill seeks to make provision for lawful interception and monitoring of certain communications in the course of their transmission through telecommunication, postal or any other related service or system in Uganda.


Reasons for registration as given by UCC

  1. Help law enforcement agencies to identify the mobile phone SIM card owners and tap communication to suppress terrorism.
  2. Track criminals who use phones for illegal activities.
  3. Curb other negative incidents such as; loss of phone through theft, nuisance/hate text messages, fraud, threats and inciting violence.
  4. Help service providers (network operators) know their customers better.

Under the East Africa Communications Organization (EACO), member states had set mid-2012 as the deadline to have all existing SIM cards registered. Tanzania was the first to complete the SIM card registration exercise. Their deadline was 30th June, 2010 after extending the deadline once. Burundi’s and Kenya’s deadlines were in December 2012. Kenya which extended its deadline thrice finally switched off unregistered SIM cards on 31st December. However, subscribers were given 90days to register their switched off SIM cards after which their numbers will be permanently recalled and reassigned to new users.

Rwanda launched their SIM card registration exercise on 4th February, 2013. The exercise which was supposed to have started in 2011 was delayed due to wide consultations with stakeholders on the best way to get the job done. Their deadline is 31st July, 2013 giving subscribers only six months to register.

In Uganda the SIM card registration exercise commenced on 1st March 2012. It was supposed to have ended on 28th February, 2013. However, the deadline was extended after serious lobbying by various stake holders including telecommunication companies who need to verify the data collected. The process has been marred by all sorts of mishaps as seen below.

Challenges experienced during the SIM card registration exercise:-

  • Inadequate dissemination of information on the SIM card registration exercise especially in rural areas.
  • False registrations where a subscriber’s phone number is registered under wrong names even after all required documents have been availed.
  • Some subscribers are photocopying their passport photo over someone else’s ID to use for registration.
  • Being asked to re-register after going through the exercise. A certain local telecom company actually put up a notice on their facebook page recalling its users to re-register.
  • Some agents charge subscribers to register their SIM cards yet registration is free.
  • A number of subscribers who registered ages ago still can’t receive confirmation.
  • The security and privacy of peoples’ bio-data is questionable as some agents carry out registration on the open streets, markets, etc.
  • Some subscribers without IDs are having their numbers registered under someone else (friend, colleague) who has an ID.
  • The information requested for by the different telecom companies is not uniform.
  • It is possible that delay/ failure by some agents in tents to submit filled registration forms could be the reason why some people who registered a while ago are still not in the system.
  • Some subscribers use out-dated passport photos.
  • The time stipulated for SIM card registration is not enough.

One common denominator among Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi is that they all have national IDs. Many Ugandans have argued that the SIM card registration exercise should have come after Ugandans have been issued with national IDs. They believe that this would have eased and streamlined the exercise. Given some of the challenges above, the integrity of data captured, and indeed the integrity of the exercise, will not fulfil the intended objective of identifying owners of telephone numbers.

Other questions raised by subscribers:-

  1. Did UCC carry out a pilot study on how SIM card registration was successfully carried out in other countries?
  2. Will registration serve its purpose if the bio-data captured is wrong?
  3. Couldn’t an on-line self-registration system be created?
  4. What will happen to the deactivated SIM cards of those who travel outside the country for long periods of time?
  5. Will the objective of security be met if callers still have an option to hide their “caller ID”?
  6. Would tourists who are visiting for a few days need to register in order to own/use a SIM card?
  7. What about minors (under 14years) who own phones but have no IDs?

What SIM card registration means to Connect for Change (C4C) project partners
A number of I-Network’s fellow project partners under C4C carry out mobile phone related projects. These project partners send out health related information through text messages, phone calls among others. They include:

  1. Health Child Uganda: SMS for maternal health.
  2. Uganda National Health Users’/Consumers’ Organization (UNHCO): SMS for improved maternal health services.
  3. Health Office-Diocese of Jinja (DOJ): collection of client satisfaction data.

These projects target people at the grass root and in rural areas. The biggest threat is that these people may not have adequate information on SIM card registration and may not register their SIM cards in time. Being that they live in rural areas, they may not have access to nearby telecom company registration points as it has been widely reported. It has also been reported that some telecom company agents have been requiring subscribers especially in rural areas to pay a “registration fee.” Some people have thus shunned the exercise because they can’t afford it. This would mean that they would miss out on the educative information, interactions and services that the project partners offer through mobile phones. That would greatly compromise the project partner effectiveness.

The essence of SIM card registration is noble. It intends to make Uganda a safer place for all of us. However, the manner in which the exercise is being handled leaves a lot to be desired.

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