Concerns persist as new cellphone user ID system goes into effect from Feb 1
By Imran Ayub
KARACHI: With telecom authorities and cellular phone service providers set to deploy a new system of selling new connections, giving subscribers an ‘inactive SIM’ (subscriber identity module) in line with the directives of the senate, legislators are concerned that the companies have not yet blocked the connections of all unverified customers.
In order to ensure that new mobile phone connections are sold to customers with valid documentary proof of their identities, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) and all stakeholders, following the directives of the senate standing committee on the interior, will introduce the ‘inactive SIM’ system by Feb 1, according to a senior official.
The ‘inactive SIM’ can only be activated after verification of the subscriber’s antecedents from the National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra).
“The system will be deployed by Jan 31, 2009, and will have major advantages,” said the official, adding that the ‘online verification system’ provides an efficient and effective verification procedure.“There will be centralised control, and responsibility will lie with the operators. There will also be enhanced authentication parameters, as [the system] caters for secret questions.”
In short, then, each individual mobile phone company is responsible for making sure that new subscribers verify their identities against Nadra records before getting an active SIM, while it will be the PTA’s responsibility to oversee this procedure for all companies.
The official said that as per the parameters of the proposed system, SIMs will be sold by outlets after the completion of the mandatory formalities, and customers will be given an instruction card explaining the SIM activation procedure.
“In their deactivated mode,” he said, “the SIMs are programmed to dial call centres, where representatives of mobile phone companies can counter-check the details given with Nadra’s data.”
The maximum time allowed for activation after purchase is 24 hours.
In April 2008, the Senate standing committee on the interior took up the task of dealing with growing complaints from law-enforcement agencies regarding cellular phones. The committee asked all mobile phone companies to block unverified cellular phone connections in the country by May 22, under the supervision of the PTA.
The process took over six months to deliver results and by Nov 2008 cellular phone companies had said to have blocked 11.15 million connections that were found not to match Nadra records.
The senate body which ordered the exercise, however, remains unconvinced. “The process has started and there is no doubt about the companies’ efforts,” said Senator Mohammad Talha Mahmood, chairman of the standing committee on the interior, when contacted by Dawn.
“But we are not ready to believe that all SIMs sold on fake information have been blocked or even traced. We are meeting again with the companies in the second week of February 2009 to review progress made so far.”
Senator Mahmood said the committee moved after it found that the police and other investigation agencies were justified in saying that since those responsible for various crimes were using cellular connections bought using fake identities, they could not be traced easily.
“We are not against any company or subscriber,” he said. “But I am happy that the companies have responded positively to our call and have made efforts to streamline the subscribers’ record.”
The country has witnessed a phenomenal growth of the cellular phone subscriber base since 2004, when two foreign telecom companies launched their operations and triggered tough competition in the market. The competition led to the subscriber base rising to nearly 90 million users by December 2008.
The PTA’s data shows that Mobilink leads the race for market share with more than 28.47 million subscribes across the country, followed by the Norwegian Telenor with 19.38 million users. The cellular arm of the Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited (PTCL), Ufone, has a total of 19.30 million subscribers, while the UAE’s Warid telecom has 16.91 million customers.
China Mobile’s Zong service has attracted more than five million subscribers so far, while Instaphone’s subscriber base has fallen to 321,134, according to the PTA’s data.
But while the companies say they have now blocked all connections bought using fake identities, law-enforcement officials and investigators say there has hardly been any impact on their jobs.
“In kidnapping-for-ransom cases the situation has not changed in any way,” said Sharfuddin Memon, chairman of the Citizens-Police Liaison Committee (CPLC). “There is no change after we have witnessed the blocking of hundreds of thousands of SIMs. The step to introduce inactive SIMs must be appreciated, but the new rules for sale of connections demand strict checks by the PTA.”
He said the PTA would have to make sure that the companies followed the defined rules and were not relaxing them in any way for customers.