Telecos, Nadra poles apart on biometric verification
By: Jawwad Rizvi
LAHORE: With the government insisting on the biometric verification of purchasers of SIMs, under the plans currently being debated is the installation of biometric verification units – each worth an estimated Rs50,000 – at all outlets selling SIMs. Prospective buyers will have to submit their finger and palm impressions, which will then be tallied against records held by the National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra). If successful, this will be the first instance of Nadra collaborating with the private sector.
At present, buyers of SIMs are required to present their original Computerised National Identity Card to retailers. The telecos then verify these details from the Nadra database, paying Nadra Rs25 per card verified.
The biometric verification plan is the brainchild of the Ministry of Interior, which had ordered the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority in November 2012 to stop all Cellular Mobile Operators (CMO) from selling new SIMs at all the customer service centers, franchises and retail outlets and withhold the stock of SIMs from all sales channels.
Soon after sales of SIMs at all outlets except company-owned customer service centers and franchises were stopped. In a series of war meetings with the government – including one with the prime minister, several others with the Ministry of IT and PTA – the telecom sector tried to negotiate various alternatives to biometric verification. However, telecom insiders say, the IT ministry and the PTA refused to consider other options and insisted that the biometric verification system be rendered operational by February 28, 2013.
Telecom sector officials who attended the meeting are now up in arms over this edict and say they’re being forced to invest more money in a move designed to benefit only Nadra. “In order to set up biometric systems at 10,000 outlets, each telecom company will have to invest approximately Rs500 million just to install the equipment,” says one insider. Each unit is estimated to cost more than Rs50,000 exclusive of maintenance cost. “Since Nadra is the only agency that provides for biometric verification, the implementation of this system will see it earning more than Rs2.5 billion from all CMOs put together,” says the telecom insider.
According to an official at a telecom company, Nadra has fleeced the telcos earlier too with a similar move. “Previously, Nadra used to charge us Rs7 to verify each CNIC. But to force us to agree to a price hike, it began to delay the information required by the CMOs. This left us with no choice but to agree to pay Rs25 per record.”
According to this official, the government is pushing the biometric verification plan as it sees this as another avenue to make money off the telecom sector. “Nadra also intends to sell SIMs at its ESahulat facilities, which will increase walk-ins and usage of their facilities. Besides, they will also earn an additional commission per transaction on the sale of SIMs.”
However, a Nadra spokesperson insists this is an outlandish theory and that it is working with the telcos to find the most cost-effective solution to the problem of verification. “The installation of biometric verification units is only one of the options being discussed; Nadra is offering a full variety of services with regard to biometric verification for SIM issuance,” said the spokesperson. “These include a software solution that can be integrated with existing software solutions deployed at customer service centers and telecom franchise outlets as well as a verification service that allows telcos to use their own equipment and software for flexibility.”
According to the spokesperson, Nadra, PTA and the telcos are still finalizing the technical details regarding verification procedures and are yet to finalise the per-record charges for biometric verification services.
Meanwhile, the spokesperson says that Nadra is currently focusing on only verification mechanisms and a decision to sell SIMs at its 3,000 ESahulat franchises will only be undertaken on a commercial basis.
Sources in Nadra, however, insisted that the only effective way to check terrorists is to implement the biometric verification plan. They said all other ways proved ineffective in this regard. They said terrorism has destroyed the image and economy of the country. The biometric verification plan if implemented would certainly cause drastic reduction in incidents of terrorism, they believed.