Tuesday May 27 2014

Telecom regulator drags feet to cut off counterfeit phones

A collection of mobile phones. Although

A collection of mobile phones. Although Counterfeit phones have flooded the Ugandan market, the communications regulator has not switched them off despite setting deadlines to do so. FILE PHOTO 

By FREDERIC MUSISI

Much as the deadlines for switching off counterfeit phones passed, the communication regulator Uganda Communications Commission has failed to crackdown on the business of fake or counterfeit handsets in the country.
UCC had set January 31, 2013 as the deadline for non-operational fake phones while all counterfeit mobile phones, including the ones that have already subscribed to a network, were meant to be disconnected starting July 1, 2013.

A survey by Prosper magazine shows that several shops especially in down town Kampala and surrounding areas continue to stockpile the targeted handsets and their spare parts, casting doubt on how and when the exercise will take effect.

The executive director of standards body charged with dealing with fakes-Uganda National Bureau of Standards (UNBS), Dr Ben Manyindo, says implementation of the exercise is long overdue.

However, the institution is also waiting for UCC to pull the trigger.
“UCC is the implementing partner and we are waiting for them to begin,” Dr Manyindo noted.

Successes elsewhere
In late 2012, the Communications Commission of Kenya (CCK) began the exercise in which about 1.5 million people using counterfeit handsets, defined as “copies of popular brands and models made from sub-standard materials” were disconnected from the airwaves.
Popular brands on the market including Nokia, Samsung, Apple Iphone series, Blackberry, Sonny Erickson; among others, have been replicated with handset replicas that are not licensed. Some are loaded with one to four Sim Cards yet they are cheap.

UCC, which is mandated to protect the “integrity of telecommunication networks in the country, defines a ‘counterfeit’ mobile device as one whose International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) number is not legitimate according to the GSMA database or which is associated with an IMEI that is genuine but not assigned to that particular device but to another legitimate one (also known as IMEI cloning).

An IMEI is a 15-digit number that is assigned to each mobile phone that is manufactured in accordance with internationally agreed safety and quality requirements. It may be considered as the serial number of the mobile phone.

Each phone has a unique IMEI number which is not shared and according to UCC, if it happens then one of the handsets using the number is a fake
For consumers to find out the status of their handsets, UCC says they should send the word ‘IMEI’ via SMS to the number 8883 or simply type *#06#.

The IMEI number should match the number on the battery pack.
UCC says if the seventh and eighth digits are 00, 02 or 20 it implies the handset is counterfeit but if they are 01 or 10, then it is genuine.
Early this year, UCC executive director Godfrey Mutabazi, revealed that the machines which will be used to inspect the handsets are already in the country and sensitisation was scheduled for February.
The said machine, Operation Registration System, officials say will enable automatic switching off of counterfeit phones.

However, UCC’s media relations officer, Isaac Kalembe, says the exercise was delayed pending a survey on the impact of counterfeits.
“We were conducting the second phase of public sensitization when we got preliminary findings of this survey,” he said.
“The survey indicated that the handsets have a minimal impact on both the users’ health and environment. They are cheap and common but some are better than most of the original handsets,” Mr Kalembe said.

Murky road for implementation
Mr Kalembe, revealed that they expect to embark on the exercise in June “because the procurements of machines to be used was completed” and what is left is massive sensitisation and eventually implementation.
Statistics of counterfeit handsets are not recorded anywhere by UCC or UNBS. But the number of phone users in the country is put somewhere at round 10 million.

Disconnecting counterfeits
To de-link all counterfeits, will require UCC to direct all licensed GSM networks-UTL, Orange/AfriCell, MTN,K2 and Airtel/Warid to block IMEIs that are not contained in the GSM database which is up to date.
GSM or Global System for Mobile Communications is a standard that describes protocols for second generation (2G) digital cellular networks used by mobile phones.

UCC has engaged the GSM-Association, a body which represents interests of mobile operators worldwide, on how to proceed.
The problem is that not all phone manufacturers and assemblers are members of GSM.

This implies that some users could have genuine handsets but whose IMEIs are not contained in the GSM database.
UCC says switching off counterfeit phones is also loosely interlinked to the Digital Migration; on which Uganda set a December 31 2014 deadline and the rest of countries yet to switch off analogue technology are looking at mid-2015.

“When we fully start, we shall fully engage both the telecom companies and the public to ensure the exercise is both objective and effective,” says Mr Kalembe.

UCC’s decision to counteract fake handsets on the market is based on the deductions of health reasons (they emit a lot of radiations) and environment conservation. However, other countries which successfully implemented the exercise did so under the pretext of revenue improvement and crime improvements, an example of Kenya.
Kenya combined it with Sim Card registration and switched off after the deadline.

In Uganda, the pilot Sim Card registration was faced with several technical glitches, legal battles, absence of data protection laws and absence of a database for storage of registered numbers. In the end, the exercise was closed with unregistered cards continuing to operate without interruptions.

The Kenyan ICT minister, Dr Fred Fred Matiang’I, last year urged neighbouring countries to speed switching both counterfeit phones and unregistered Sim Cards as one of the ways to deepen economic integration.
Given the proximity of boundaries, he said there was need to harmonise ICT in the region.

Challenges
The other problem is that Uganda businessmen are still stocking the handsets in bulk.

The spokesperson of the Kampala City Traders Association (KACITA), Issa SSekito, in an interview, admitted that fake handsets are one of the biggest challenges but emphasised the need for engagement when UCC starts switching them off.
“Unless UCC undertakes the exercise, UNBS is very incompetent to act,” he said.

The other challenge is a number of original mobile handsets imported are usually locked in specific foreign networks but during unlocking (done locally) they are assigned forged IMEIs and sometimes duplicated, which is another task for UCC.

WHY SWITCH OFF?
A counterfeit phone is one whose International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) number is not legitimate according to the GSMA database.
According to Uganda Communications Commission counterfeit mobile phones cause health risks to users as they emit higher levels of radiation than is recommended.
•Counterfeit phones are usually of poor quality and have a very short life span.
•Phones with cloned (duplicated) IMEI, make it difficult for law enforcement agencies to track down criminals using mobile phones to commit crimes.
• Counterfeit phones negatively affect the quality of service provided by mobile service providers’, for example high incidence of dropped calls largely due to their inability to connect seamlessly to the mobile networks.

musisif@ug.nationmedia.com

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