SIM registration, the law and the arguments

For your information, on March 3, 2012 all telecoms operators in Ghana have been legally mandated by the SIM Registration Regulation, LI 2006, to deactivate all unregistered SIMs in the country, or they (the operators) would be penalized.

This means, all SIM cards in mobile phones, modems, tablets and any other device, which are not registered or not properly registered, would be deactivated and they would stop functioning instantly.

This is in line with the licensing requirement of all the telecoms operators as provided in the Electronic Communication Act, Act 775, 2008, which mandates all telecoms operators to keep the data of their subscribers. You don’t need to know the law to know about SIM registration, because it has been a topical issue in Ghana for more than a year now, since it started.

March 3, 2012 is a Saturday, which is obviously a weekend, but the thirty days grace period, which the law gave the telecoms operators to mop up all unregistered and improperly registered SIM cards, begun from February 2, when the regulation was passed, and ends on March 2, 2012, which is Friday.

Some industry watchers have asked whether the deadline falling on a Saturday does not mean anything in law; and sources at the National Communications Authority (NCA) said to the extent that telecoms operators work on Saturdays and people use their phones on Saturdays, the law can also be applied on a Saturday.

But between now and Saturday, you have at least five final opportunities to check if your SIM is registered or not. Just send a blank message to short code 400 on all networks – MTN, Vodafone, Tigo, Airtel and Expresso.

There are three possible replies you can get if you send a blank message to short code 400 – that your SIM is registered or that your registration is pending or that your SIM is not registered; registered means you are safe, but pending and unregistered means you need to go to your service provider with one of the five legally required valid ID cards – Passport, Voter ID, Drivers’ license, National Health Insurance Card or National Identification Card.

Lots of people, take the process for granted, but on February 6, 2012, the NCA released a report, which indicated that of all the ID cards submitted for verification, a large number, 5,580,875 came out as invalid.

Let’s put that in perspective – that is over one million more than the subscribers of Vodafone; and obviously more than those of Tigo, Airtel and Expresso. In fact it is about the subscribers of Tigo and Airtel put together.

But that is not all; the NCA says those who have registered so far – valid and invalid – constitute 98% of the total mobile subscriptions in the country. This means there is some two per cent which have not bothered to even register their SIMs.

This is where the argument begins – the telecoms operators said as far as they are concerned, all of those IDs submitted for registration were valid, so the millions of “invalid” registrations is largely due to the ‘poorly implemented manual verification process.’

The telecoms operators rightly noted that they are not ID issuing agencies, so they could not have validated the IDs people presented for their registration; and that is why they have had difficulties rectifying a lot of those registrations returned to them by the NCA as invalid, because the persons involved came back with the same IDs they presented for the original registration.

They also argue that the manner the manual verification was done, left room for lots of human error. They said the process was nothing more than people manually cross-checking ID cards against volumes of largely hand-written or printed booklets, and that is suspect, because those who did the checks themselves had not been examined to know if their eye sights were fit to undertake such a strenuous exercise.

The telecoms operators have always said that the country’s ID system itself, like almost all other national records, is not in good shape so it was going to be difficult to do any meaningful and reliable validation of people’s IDs.

It is important to note at this point that a particular telecoms operator supported the whole SIM registration idea right from the start, even while the others raised objections and sought for the flaws in the national ID system to be fixed first. Now that telecoms operator has joined the others raising the same issues.

The NCA, admitted there could have been some errors during the verification process so long as it was implemented by humans; but the NCA also insists the mistakes from that could only be very few because an overwhelming part of the mess had already been caused by the shoddy work done by the agents hired by the telecoms operators to do the SIM registration.

The NCA argued that the telecoms operators hired mostly illiterate and semi-literate agents to do the SIM registration on commission basis – i.e. the telecoms operators paid agents according to how many subscribers they registered per day.

It said because those agents wanted to be paid more money, they cut corners and registered several SIMs wrongly, and the operators did not monitor the agents properly, and that is why there are millions of invalid registrations as shown by the verification process.

Besides, the NCA said it is not true that the verification process was largely manual, because a large chunk of the data used by the respective ID issuing agencies is computerised.

So what are subscribers also saying; very few subscribers can tell exactly how the verification was done, but they are talking about their experiences at the registration point and how that has affected the current status of their SIMs.

Some subscribers say some agents registered their SIMs without taking subscribers’ ID details – others say they presented valid IDs for registration but later checks indicated their SIMs are registered in the names of other persons they do not know – Indeed some reported that some agents gave them an option to either buy an already registered card or one that they would have to queue to register; and some subscribers obviously opted for the already registered SIMs to save time.

These were agents supposedly trained by the operators and regularly monitored. Indeed, the operators have also admitted that they found some agents to have registered people improperly, and even illegally sometimes, and they either sacked or handed some of those agents to the police. This is partly an admission that there were hitches during the registration, but it also means the operators monitored the agents and dealt with the recalcitrant ones.

So obviously, there is blame everywhere, but whereas the NCA insists very little of the problem could be attributed to verification errors, the telecoms operators also insist very little of the problem could have come from registration.

Meanwhile, the two parties agree that quite a number of those found to be invalidly registered may either be dormant numbers sitting on the operators’ networks, or registered SIMs being held by SIM box fraudsters waiting to use them for fraud.

Moving away from that argument, it should be noted that aspects of the LI 2006 itself leave room for speculation.

The law, for instance, requires citizens to use one of five specifically stated ID cards, or any other to be specified by the NCA for registration; and it requires foreigners to use passports or any other travel document.

Out of the five; passport, NHIS card, NIA card, Drivers License and Voters ID, only one, the NIA card, is legally mandated for all citizens and persons resident in Ghana to have; the other four are by choice. Meanwhile registration for, and distribution of the NIA cards are still ongoing, and yet the law makes it mandatory for those who do not have NIA cards yet, and do not also have any of the other four, to use anyone of the five or they cannot register a SIM in their names.

Again for foreigners, the law says passport or any other travel document, and yet the NCA insists it must be either a passport or lasser passé for ECOWAS citizens, and strictly passport for other nationals outside of ECOWAS.

But under immigration rules, particularly for ECOWAS citizens, the Ghana Immigration Service accepts all ID cards issued in the name of any ECOWAS state, be it a National ID of that state, passport or lasser passé; but the NCA says to the extent it does not accept other ID cards in Ghana, there is no way it will accept other ID cards from other states apart from passport and lasser passé.

So the question is, is it for the NCA to interpret the law in such limited manner, or it is for the courts to determine whether or not all ID cards accepted by the Ghana Immigration Service as valid for travel into Ghana, that document qualifies as an ID for SIM registration? The lawyers must speak to this issue.

Again, the law requires that if a subscriber assigns a SIM registered in his/her name to another person, he/she should inform his/her operator in writing within one week, and the one to whom the SIM has been assigned should also provide the same particulars the original subscriber provided to effect a transfer of the SIM into his/her name.

The question here is what if one assigns a number to someone because that person did not have the required ID in the first place – is that not why the law allows one person to register at least five SIMs in one person’s name – does it mean if someone does not have the required ID, that person cannot use a mobile phone, and cannot even use a number belonging to a family member or a friend who has legally registered the SIM – does it means if one assigns a number to another person who does not have a valid ID, one has broken the law?

These are questions that would engage the minds of industry players going forward. But answers need to be found to these questions fast before they become another baggage in this whole process, intended to generate a reliable national demographic data, prevent crimes like SIM box fraud, and also stem the situation where people use anonymous phone numbers to threaten others.

But would the telecoms operators really deactivate people’s SIMs on March 3, 2012; and if they do or do not, how would the NCA know?

By Samuel Dowouna

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