After a year’s delay in implementing President Kibaki’s directive on registration of Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) cards, the process finally kicked off last Monday.
This is a best practice in the mobile phone industry world over and among its major benefits, is to dissuade mobile phone-aided crime such as terrorism, money laundering, extortion, fraud, hate messages and incitement.
Further, the success of the process will lay ground work for the implementation of mobile number portability which is under way. This allows one to move from one mobile service provider to another without changing one’s cell phone number.
In Kenya, criminals use mobile devices to commit offences, mostly to lure people to their hideouts or to call relatives and friends of abductees, issue threats and demand ransom.
Communications Commission of Kenya (CCK) is now compiling a database of all mobile phone users in the country by ensuring that new and existing subscriptions supply key information about themselves. After the exercise, the theory is, if a call is linked to a crime, the police can find out the owner of the SIM card that was used.
Although many people approve of this new requirement in principle, not everyone is happy with its implementation. In a country where a subscriber could simply buy a new SIM pack on the streets, going through the hassle of registration is an unnecessary inconvenience.
Besides, the one month deadline is impractically short to register millions of pre-paid subscribers, including pre-pay internet access modems, who have not signed up for mobile money transfer services.
No serious registration in Kenya, from birth registration to voter registration has even been accomplished without extension and one can bet with confidence that even this one will be no exception.
Examples are subscribers who are roaming with their cell phones out of the country and will not be back until after two months.
Closing the exercise by end of next month will mute their phones, and affect service provider’s income, besides inconveniencing the subscriber. CCK should, therefore, consider extending this deadline in light of these realities.
Telecoms operators believe that disconnecting subscribers who may not be able to meet the strict deadlines would cut down on the volume of calls that would have originated from these SIM cards. This is not a far-fetched fear. There is growing evidence that SIM card registration laws that were introduced in South Africa, Tanzania, Botswana and Cameroon within the last few years are slowing down customer growth.
In these countries subscribers hesitate to give out their personal details to service providers fearing that the registration will give authorities the ability to monitor them wherever they are.
Hawkers and kiosk owners who eke out a living from selling SIM cards are not sure what will become of their livelihood. There is apprehension that people will no longer want to patronise the streets to buy SIM cards for fear that they might not be able to activate the lines.
At a regional level, implementation of SIM registration law is already making it difficult for pan-African mobile service provider Zain to roll out and implement the One Network service because some countries in which the company has a presence have no SIM registration laws while others do.
Concerns are rife that phone registration will work against the principle of universal access and will add to the cost of SIM cards as vendors will be forced to invest in data capturing technology. Also, attempts to register in-bound roamers will have a negative impact on tourists.
Sustained awareness campaigns both the CCK and mobile telephony operators will result in a more informed public on the importance of the exercise and allay any fears.
Sam Wambugu is a monitoring and evaluation specialist working in Ghana. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org