" ITREALMS: SIM Cards registration: Stakeholders insist on NCC database

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

SIM Cards registration: Stakeholders insist on NCC database

It’s the Federal Government duty to protect her citizens’ lives and properties, therefore, the onus is on government via the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) to take charge of SIM card registration and database, so as to achieve the goal of safeguarding the citizens, writes REMMY NWEKE.

EXPERTS and stakeholders alike in the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) sector have warned the National Assembly on the need to look beyond mere monetary allocation but the security of the nation on the subject matter over the budget for the Subscriber Identification Module (SIM) cards registration.

ITRealms Online recalls that last week, precisely on Thursday, SIM card registration was in the news of suffering yet another setback following reported controversy it has generated at the National Assembly, especially in the House of Representatives, who were undecided over the budget allocation to the project.

Those who spoke on the vexed issue, urged House of Representative members to always consider national interest in terms of security in the matter as it could amount to double job and waste of the national resources if the exercise is left entirely in the hands of telecom operators.

Although they believe in the ability of the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), the federal government’s agency in charge of regulating telecommunications in the country under the leadership of Dr. Eugene Juwah as the Executive Vice Chairman (EVC) to explain to the federal legislators the need for this, they argued that NCC should be able to justify its budget, mostly on SIM cards registration.

Some of those who commented on this issue included the chairman, Association of Licensed Telecommunications Operator of Nigeria (ALTON), Mr. Gbenga Adebayo, chief executive officer of Technology Development Company (TDC), Dr. Emmanuel Ekuwem, Executive Director, Digital Sense Africa, Mrs. Nkemdilim Nweke and President, Association of Industrial Security and Safety Operators of Nigeria, Dr. Ona Ekhomu as well as the Executive Secretary of African Telecom Development Initiative (ATDI).

In his reaction, ALTON chairman, Mr. Adebayo, tasked the NCC to justify the budget it has mapped out for the registration of SIM cards in the country.

Specifically responding to reports on the House of Representatives’ decision to step down the budget of NCC due to non-clarification on how it intends to spend the budget, among others, especially the part on SIM card registration reportedly estimated at N6.1 billion, he urged NCC to enlighten relevant stakeholders that require such education including members of the National Assembly.

He also said that the operators are not keen in bearing the burden of registering both old and new subscribers, even as the much they are doing currently is with anticipation that NCC would definitely compensate either directly or indirectly due to its financial enormity.

“The NCC has a duty to justify the budget and convince the approving authorities who obviously have less information about the cost elements and the socio-economic benefits,” he charged.

Stressing that the delay and suspension of the exercise is a major setback for the entire process and will make a mess of the extensive consultation and work done by all stakeholders over the past three years on SIM registration, if care is not taken.

He maintained that it would be difficult for service providers to carry the huge costs of registering the entire subscribers on the national network considering the capital outlay required by operation in the face of numerous challenges as an industry.

“It will not be possible for operators to bear the cost of registration old subscribers on the national network,” he declared. Highlighting the imperative of enlightenment, ALTON chairman told ITRealms Online that there is need for more public awareness and the NCC as an agency of the government in the centre of this should be able to defend its own project and budgets so as to achieve the set objectives.

“It behooves on NCC to convince all parties that indeed it’s a noble course that worth the budget requested,” he advised, noting that the social and security cost for Nigeria as a nation far outweigh the economic costs being argued by stakeholders, especially at the floor of the national assembly.

Noteworthy is that the Commission had planned to spend over N69bn for its services this year, but following the controversial provision in the budget for the SIM card registration for the tune of N6.1bn, of which the National Assembly claimed uncomfortable with the allocation.

ITRealms Online gathered that as the inclusion of the N6.1bn in the budget generated another round of protest on Thursday, thus, Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mr. Dimeji Bankole, had to instruct four committees of the House to investigate it further.

These were the committees on Drugs/Narcotics/Financial Crimes; Anti-Corruption; Communications; and Ethics and Privileges, with the point of reference being for them to find out whether the proposed SIM registration exercise violates any provision of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission Act.

Also, the committees were to produce a joint report within 10 days, in addition to the fact that the lawmakers were against the SIM registration on the ground that it is the responsibility of telecommunications operators to register subscribers.

Before now, the Senate, ITRealms Online learnt, passed the budget but not without the same controversy luring its head, amounting to the decision to remove it, yet the last minute understanding was reached in between, according to industry observers, which encouraged the Red Chambers to reinstate it.

The budget, ITRealms Online also notes, was heavily argued at the floor of the House in June, the majority of lawmakers voted to delete the N6.1bn from it.

But at the conference with the Senate, the figure was reportedly returned to the budget, which took members of the House aback.

However, last Thursday, as the budget was deliberated again for approval, a lawmaker from Rivers State, Mrs. Betty Apiafi, reportedly raised a point of order to speak against it, alleging double deal between the request and EFCC Act.

She cited Section 12 of the EFCC Act, which she said required any company engaged in providing telecommunications services to register the names and residential addresses of subscribers.

Apiafi was saying that the Act required compliance with the provision irrespective of any other provision that might be made by the NCC Act itself, arguing that the proposed SIM registration would cover the names and residential addresses of subscribers, a responsibility she said, the EFCC Act had already vested on service providers.

When Bankole sought the opinion of the Deputy Chairman of the Committee on Ethics and Privileges, Mr. John Kalipa, a lawyer, he backed the argument of Apiafi. On the other hand, the Chairman, House Committee on Rules and Business, Mr. Ita Enang, equally a lawyer, disagreed with both Apiafi and Kalipa, claiming that the budget, if passed, would not be in breach of the EFCC Act.

Mr. Bankole after observing that the House must be careful not to commit an illegality directed the committees to investigate the correct position and get back to the House.

Prior to the foregoing, an arrangement was reportedly reached between NCC and telecom operators, the former is said to have accepted to register existing subscribers, while the latter would register new subscribers, of course, not without compensation, after all, it was not their primary assignment to register subscribers as a prelude to national database.

Lamenting the implication of the delays, the Executive Director, Digital Sense Africa, Mrs. Nkemdilim Nweke, blamed it all on ignorance of the legislators and advised them to always place national security first before any other thing.

According to her, allowing telecom operators to conduct the registration entirely on their own does not make both economic and security sense, because assuming these operators registered subscribers without government support, it could amount to eventually begging them whenever the government or its agencies, especially those charged with security may need such a database for national assignment and could result in making of wanton demands.

She argued that if the nation, for instance, has a database, it would be easier for the telecom operators to key in by mere reaffirming the identification of the subscribers with the national database instead of structuring this afresh as it is of today.

For the communication strategist, Mrs. Nweke, most Nigerians need to be enlightened in this respect, especially women and rural dwellers as well as law makers across the three tiers of government nationwide, stating that even if EFCC Act has charged operators to register subscribers by mere taking of names and residences as quoted by Mrs. Betty Apiafi, it may not have stipulated in-depth registration which entails biometric and full data capturing let alone empowering the data owners to give it out at will.

“If it’s the federal government owned (database), every Nigerian would have access to the database unlike when the private companies own it. So, the government must sponsor SIM registration via NCC,” she said.

These, she pointed out involve large expenses on the part of the operators and if at last government wants the database, which is critical and concerns security, definitely they may have to pay for it. By then, she said, it could be costlier. Insisting that if SIM registration is limited to operators for a database like this one, it would come in bits apart from the cost implication in the future of accessing such database.

Corroborating this, the Executive Secretary, ATDI, Mr. Ken Ugbechie, noted that it would be in the best interest of the country for the green chambers to act quickly on the NCC budget, more so on SIM card proposal before it, saying that it would enable NCC to effectively register all old SIM cards in the nation’s telephone networks.

Ugbechie stressed that it was based on this premise that ATDI is canvassing for the House to urgently re-consider its stand in view of the dire security situation in the country. Observing that SIM card registration is gaining ascendancy all over the world in the wake of nagging terror attacks and rising wave of technology-enhanced crimes, hence, Nigeria cannot afford to play the Ostrich in such a sensitive issue.

Equally, the chief executive officer, TDC, Dr. Ekuwem, said that NCC has not taken the industry along in the logic behind her wanting to register existing SIM cards for operators, be it old or new, the SIM data would belong to operators’ customer database, stressing that no corporate entity shares its client database with any other party.

He wondered if the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) keeps a mirror of depositors’ databases of banks, arguing that NCC may have good national security and economic reasons for wanting to do this, but it has not taken key stakeholders along.

“I don’t joke with my country’s interest. If NCC opens up to key stakeholders, we’ll support the move and lobby for it. So far, no reason to support NCC,” he asserted.

President, Association of Telecom Companies of Nigeria (ATCON), Mr. Titi Omo-Ettu said, delay in government process is not good regardless of who is at the receiving end of the delay and the fact that NCC is involved is irrelevant if we must develop our processes.

Also, he said, it depends on what anybody wants to see. When the NCC directed that Telephone Operators should go to the field to capture SIM card users’ data, it probably considered that operators needed a budget to be able to do it. Stressing that if this is in affirmation, it would sound logical to expect argument that delay in budget might affect the registration.

“It is also not known if the budget request involves a component to compensate the operators. There are so many unknowns that it is best to argue that we allow government processes to run on the initiative of those who are in charge,” he said, insisting that in this instance ATCON believes the Lower House should be allowed to do its job in the hope that it will be a good job, though they had already advocated for a support subvention to be considered to whoever is executing SIM cards registration.

Omo-Ettu said, that registration of telecom services users is squarely and unambiguously the responsibility of NCC, so it does not matter to who the Commission delegates it.

“Every institution of government should do the job it is paid to do. They will not be helping anybody by doing their jobs. The issue of ‘help’ does not arise. We must hold them accountable for their action against our needs as citizens of Nigeria. That is the hallmark of democracy and whoever does not want to conform must get out of service to the people,” he submitted.

As the nation awaits the submission of the House committees, they must have at the back of their minds that the security of the nation should be paramount on all things and at all times.

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