Concern over plan to block pre-paid SIMs
By: Imran Ali Teepu
ISLAMABAD: Telecom operators and even some security officials have expressed grave concern over the government’s plan to block pre-paid SIMs issued on bogus national identity cards. Experts believe that the $10 billion telecom industry in Pakistan with the highest mobile phone penetration in South Asia will be in trouble if the plan is executed.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik had said on Tuesday that the government was considering a proposal to block all pre-paid SIMs in phases to prevent their use in terrorist activities. He also said that mobile phones had become the biggest weapon in the hands of terrorists who were using unauthorised SIMs.
An official of a mobile phone company told Dawn on Wednesday that it was unfair to blame telecom operators for the government’s failure to curb terrorist activities.
“It’s not our fault if someone managed to break a prison in Bannu by sneaking mobile phones inside the jail,” he said.
On ‘chaand raat’, the interior minister ordered the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority to direct mobile phone operators to shut down their services in different parts of the country for 15 hours and later claimed that the decision had averted a terrorist disaster.
“A number of our cellphone sites were down even on Eid day because the voice and data services were shut down in Karachi and we are in the process of estimating our losses,” said a risk management officer of a leading telecom operator.
“To bring the telecom tower sites (also called mobile boosters) back on track after the shutdown also involved a great deal of engineering efforts,” he said.
Sharing official figures with Dawn, a senior analyst at the IT & Telecom Ministry said that according to PTA website Mobilink had about 35.7 million subscribers, Telenor 29.3 million and Zong 15.6 million. He said there were 118 million mobile phone users in Pakistan.
Telecom companies are declining to share the break-up of figures of post- and pre-paid SIMs with Dawn. A senior vice president of the marketing division of a telecom operator said: “Pre-paid customers constitute 97 per cent of the mobile phone industry.”
Since the number of post-paid customers is quite small, pre-paid customers were a major source of income of telecom operators, he said, adding that the economic condition in the country did not allow ordinary citizens to have a post-paid service.
Ahmed Umar, owner of a mobile phone franchise, said: “Managing a post-paid connection is difficult for a customer since he has to pay a monthly bill, deposit a reasonable amount with the mobile phone operator and he is not sure how much money he has spent on calls and messages.”
He said the post-paid customer pays a guarantee of about Rs10,000 for different packages of Ufone, Mobilink, Zong, Warid and Telenor. “However, if you are a pre-paid customer you can easily manage your calls and texts as per your budget,” Mr Umar said.
He said that almost all telecom operators in Pakistan treated pre-paid users as their key customers and maintained their complete information and data with verification coming through CNICs. “We have a security feature like asking the customer a secret question before issuing a pre-paid SIM and we have done several verifications of our mobile phone customers on the orders of PTA,” he added.
Government officials working on the expansion of IT and telecom sector are also critical of the plan to block SIMs. Officials in the Prime Minister’s office were not prepared to say that the interior ministry’s initiative was a good move for the telecom industry.
One official at the PM’s office who looks after the affairs of the Ministry of IT & Telecom because Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf is also in-charge of the ministry said: “Mr Malik’s statement will create a negative impact on the foreign direct investment since telecom is the only competitive sector giving Rs118 billion in taxes to the government.”
The foreign investors will be a bit reluctant because investments in the telecom sector will be a matter of concern for them since the sale of 3G licence was due to be announced by the government in coming months.
“We were expecting to generate around $1.5 billion from the auction of 3G licences but the interior minister’s statement will have a negative impact on it,” the official said. A senior official of the IT & telecom ministry said the employment of about 1.5 million people depended on pre-paid phone business directly or indirectly.
Security: Counter-terrorism experts have also criticised the plan to stop pre-paid cellphone service.
According to a counter-insurgency official, mobile phones are a key source of information for the security establishment whose workload has doubled because of increasing insurgency and changing tactics of terrorists.
“These mobile phones are our ears since we have caught a number of terrorists and kidnappers and helped police and other investigations agencies to solve murder cases with the help of Call Detail Record (CDR),” he said.
The official claimed that security agencies and even key security departments, including police, in a number of instances caught terrorists with the help of mobile phone data. He said curbing the technology would create problems for security agencies and counter-terrorism experts.
“Banning this technology will increase our workload and we will have to hire more sleuths and spend more money on finding moles and this will cause a big problem,” he insisted. Some experts said that mobile handsets were used by terrorists mainly for communication and the security apparatus was yet to find instances of mobile phone terrorism.
“It was only in October 2002 when the Bali bomb blast was triggered with the help of a mobile phone in Indonesia,” said the official.