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Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Issues that may hinder SIM registration


The announcement for registration of Subscriber Identification Module (SIM) unearthed some concerns including possible rural exclusion, reports REMMY NWEKE.

SINCE the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), expressed resolve to register Subscribers Identification Module (SIM) cards in the country, last December with March 1, 2010 commencement date, the plan has received lots of knocks amidst commendations.

Earlier last year, NCC had reiterated that 2010 would be SIM registration deadline or defaulters would face extermination; having initiated discussions with stakeholders on the subject at the behest of security agencies and stakeholders’ group like the Association of Telecommunication Companies of Nigeria (ATCON).

A proactive NCC:
At the Public Hearing on SIM Card Registration by the National Assembly in Abuja, recently, Chief Executive Officer, NCC, Dr. Ernest Ndukwe, reported that industry-wide committee whose recommendations on the registration process, had been received by NCC’s board, as at last quarter of 2009, had gotten green light.

Ndukwe, equally said, the draft bill under consideration could be an amendment to the Communications Act, but majority of the House Committee on Communications insisted that the action of the SIM card stakeholders-based Committee still needs the House support through proper legislation. They pointed out that the existing NCC law has substantial powers to implement the process with the support of National Assembly.

However, Ndukwe noted lack of identity management system in the country as a major huddle in the process, stressing, that plans have been reached with the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC), to leverage on the process to be implemented even in the rural areas.

Three days before public hearing:
Chairman, House Committee on Communications, Hon. Dave Salako, revealed that it was only three days to the public hearing that his Committee was informed of the level of work already done by the Commission in this regard, but said there is need for the parliament to play its role.

The bill sponsor, Hon. Akeem Arole Fancy, said non-registration of SIM card constitutes a threat to national security and it is time to begin, noting that NCC needs the mandate of the House to accomplish the process, while applauding the Commission for doing a great job in the contribution to the nation’s economy through good regulation of the industry.


NATCOMS petitions NCC:

As soon as the announcement was made, a legion of issues came to the fore with the petition by National Association of Telecommunications Subscribers (NATCOMS), entitled ‘Issues with the impending telecommunications subscriber registration’. Top on the group’s agenda was the criterion, thus it suggested the exercise required some deep thinking and considerations before successful execution could be realised.

They argued that in 2001, when Global System for Mobile communications (GSM) was launched, one of the operators was actually taking some data before consumers could buy a SIM card, namely the potential customers’ passport photograph, full names and address, insisting that March 1 commencement date was not visible. They expressed worries that now, “subscribers are over 70,000,000 and NCC wants to start the exercise by March 1 and end in Six months?”

... Canvasses adequate sensitisation:
NATCOMS through its national president, Chief Deolu Ogunbanjo, canvassed the need for adequate registration strategies, precisely on logistics and enough preparation for the exercise, mostly on integrity of collected data as well as the management of same for protection against abuse. Also, NATCOMS said, huge logistic requirement is a major challenge that operators would face, and urged NCC to move the March 1, date to July 2010.

Equally of concern to NATCOMS was the inadequate sensitisation of consumers, which number is over 75m as at the last count, even as Ogunbanjo noted that little or no publicity has been given to the initiative since December 31, 2009 announcement. He described the initial advertorial as grossly inadequate and advised NCC to emulate the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) campaign strategy on ‘Polymer Notes’ which was sustained for months across various media; print, radio and television.

NATCOMS, further advised the regulator to publish a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) on its website on the subject as part of the campaign, so as to adequately inform consumers, expressing the belief that the sensitisation campaign ought to be much more aggressive than the ‘CBN Polymer Notes’.

“This is important for public sensitisation and subscriber buy-in on the initiative as we know from experience as well as interaction that a good number of subscribers are reluctant to give personal information about themselves without a very compelling reason or clear mandate from the authorities to do so,” Ogunbanjo submitted.

Identification modalities:
Another issue of concern on SIM registration has been the identification modalities. According to NCC, subscribers must have “Corporate cum company or work place identity cards that have pension identification or tax numbers etc” as one of the required forms of identification. But NATCOMS insisted that pension identification or tax numbers are not usually provided on these corporate and company identity cards, hence, worried over the possession of any of the prescribed identity documents by a good number of Nigerians who are not urban or semi urban dwellers.

The group lamented this could disenfranchise subscribers across networks and increase the inability to own and use phones; contrary to constitutional provisions as well as social service and developmental requirements of the universal availability of telecommunications services, just as NATCOMS suggested a review of the stipulated identity documents already listed.

For the Corporate Services Executive at MTN Nigeria, Mr. Wale Goodluck, the plan to register SIM in the country is of good omen, but would definitely affect operations, based on the outcome of such exercises in Ivory Coast, Cameroun and South Africa, especially through erosion of connections and revenue, which could come as lack of people choice or inability to register.

Though, he said, NCC was tinkering of engaging a third party for the registration, which was confirmed by Head, Media and Public Relations at NCC, Mr. Reuben Muoka to ITRealms Online. This, Goodluck noted, was not the case in other places where SIM registration have been done, saying that the best is for the operators to handle it.

Nevertheless, he agreed that SIM registration would help to provide the much needed database, cautioning that in the bid to get this done, stakeholders must be wary of the notion of universal access, which means that people in rural communities should have access as well, highlighting from a security perspective that SIM registration would give a lot of empowerment and enablement to the security agencies.

Government through the Universal Service Provision Fund (USPF), he noted, has been advocating operators’ presence in the rural communities, but warned that rural dwellers may be disenfranchised in this exercise. “Yes, a lot of people in the rural communities will not have a drivers’ license, a company ID card with a pension or tax number. They will not have a tax card. The notion of tax cards is still new in Nigeria and they will not have an e-Passport. I am talking based on the parameters that have been issued for now,” he said, urging inclusion of other means of identification for a successful outing.

ALTON seeks 60-day extension:
As March 1 commencement date drew nearer, the exclusive body of telecom operators in the country, the Association of Licensed Telecommunications Operators of Nigeria (ALTON) ended an emergency executive session with a communiqué calling on NCC to extend the date by 60 days, which means it should start on May 1, 2010, while 30 days should be given to new subscribers.

Though ALTON has contrast position on biometric system suggested by NCC, they could not propose an alternative, but went on to state that operators’ preference is not biometric due to poor power situation in the country.

“… The duration for registration should be up to between 6-month to 18-month for the existing subscribers and eternity for new subscribers,” ALTON communiqué entitled ‘The position of ALTON on the Registration of SIM cards’ signed by its chairman, Mr. Gbenga Adebayo and made available to ITRealms Online.

Also, ALTON opted that existing subscribers should be given a minimum of 12 months instead of the six months by NCC from the day registration commences and this is due to the literacy level of majority of the populace, stressing that at expiration of this period without registration, an extra three months grace should be granted before the total disconnection.

Further, ALTON proposed incentives for operators to defray part of the cost of registration of new subscribers, which could come in form of administrative compensation such as reduction in Annual Operating Levy (AOL), numbering plan renewal fees, frequency renewal charges and other concession on this account.

Listening NCC:

As part of its listening ability, NCC, a fortnight ago announced a shift in the date for the registration of SIM cards in the country to May 1, from its initial date of March 1, 2010.

Head, Media & Public Relations, NCC, Mr. Reuben Muoka, said the shift in date was due to the discovery that a good number of SIM cards were pushed into the market with instant activation features, which may not have been cleared out before March 1, 2010.

Muoka clarified that the window period from March 1 to May 1, 2010, was given to the operating companies to clear the backlog of SIM cards currently in the market to allow for seamless registration of all new SIM cards from the new date.

“The extended period will also give the service providers the extra time to finalize the installation of all necessary facilities for the registration,” he declared, adding that the exercise would include the capture of photograph and biometrics of subscribers, but was silent on the identification modalities.

Why NCC insist on SIM registration:
Adducing some reasons why the commission recently insisted on SIM registration, after over nine years of industry deregulation, Dr. Ndukwe, said at the CEO Agenda Nigeria, organized in Lagos, that at inception, the primary concern was to create access and provide the populace with workable phone lines to communicate.

“There was no thought for registration then because from experience, as country of nearly 150 million people with only 400, 000 lines provided by former monopoly, NITEL, there was nothing to register,” he said, stressing that most countries of the world have only recently started SIM registration, hence Nigeria is not lagging behind in this regard, citing South Africa, for instance, which mobile services rolled out over eight years before Nigeria and only implemented SIM card registration as from mid-2009.

Above all:
It’s no longer in doubt if the SIM registration exercise is a good process, but more of these kind of exercise needed government and legislative foresight to deliver and like one of the industry observers puts it, if the industry committees at the National Assembly were as proactive as NCC, the nation would go places with the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) sector. And so, it sounds appalling they will claim knowing about such a sensitive issue, even after it was severally reported in the media.

Also relevant at this point is that NCC needs to liaise with the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and invariably understudy its earlier attempts to capture data for upcoming electronic voting.

Now is the time for all hands to be on the deck, although NCC last weekend announced its decision to move the commencing date to May 1, obviously in agreement with the operators’ group, it is expected that the time frame in the shift would enable both the operators and NCC, to harmonise strategies for a successful SIM registration eventually.

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