Saturday April 14 2018

How SIM cards became most sought-after item

How SIM cards became most sought-after item

Vendors selling mobile phones and Sim cards in downtown Kampala last week. PHOTO BY ABUBAKER LUBOWA 

By Esther Oluka

Earlier last month, Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) released a statement banning issuance and replacements of new SIM cards awaiting the installation of the Application Programming Interface (API) with the National Identification Registration Authority (NIRA).
UCC then came up with conditions to be satisfied before Sim cards may either be issued or replaced. The conditions include getting a police letter, a letter from NIRA confirming that a Sim card holder’s National Identity Card is authentic and the applicant registers for a Sim card with a respective telecommunications company, using biometrics and a photograph.

The other conditions for getting a Sim card include issuance of a fresh card registration form and ensuring that the Sim card holder shall be using the Sim card in a genuine, approved device.
These directives have been in place for weeks and a number of people who would like to acquire new Sim cards or replace them have endeavoured to fulfill them. But they still have no Sim cards and cannot use their mobile phones.

The objective
The stated objective of the UCC directives on Sim cards sounds noble. Individuals with criminal intentions have been acquiring Sim cards not registered in their names and using them to commit crimes. For instance, the people who kidnapped and killed Susan Magara in February used Sim cards not registered in their names to call Magara’s family members and extract ransom before killing her.
Security agencies say it would be easier to track down such criminals if each Sim card in use in the country was genuinely registered in its user’s name. So UCC swung into action to implement this and, as they said, protect Ugandans from criminals.

But the process has turned out to be painful to many people as the telecom companies and UCC have taken long to even out the technological issues needed to facilitate the directives on issuance of Sim cards. As a result, thousands who would like to acquire new Sim cards or replace lost ones have not been able to do so for over a month and are unsure of when they will manage to do it. Telecom companies are losing billions in lost business, and dealers in Sim cards have their businesses strangled.
This reporter reached out to a frustrated telephone user who says his phone was grabbed in Nakawa, Kampala while driving back home on March 9, losing his Sim card in the process.

“I got both a police letter and document from NIRA and presented it to the respective telecom service outlet. I was, however, shocked to learn that despite having the required documentation, they were not doing Sim card replacements until the biometric card readers are in place,” the frustrated phone user who asked not to be named said.
After failing to get assistance from the service centre, our source wrote to the telecom company on its Facebook account.
“When will you guys resume Sim card replacements? It’s taking forever,” his message read.

The telecom company later responded: “We are still waiting for a go-ahead from the regulator and card readers from NIRA for verification. We apologise for the inconvenience caused.”
Like many other telephone subscribers interested in doing Sim card replacements, he has no choice but to wait until the telecommunication company starts replacing cards.

At the service centres
On April 11, this reporter visited some of the telecom service providers inquiring about the status of issuing and replacing Sim cards.
At the Uganda Telecom (UTL) service centre at Shoprite near the Old Taxi Park in Kampala, there was only one attendant. I was the only customer seeking to be served.

“I want my Sim card replaced,” I told the attendant.
“Do you have a police letter and recommendation from NIRA?” came her answer. I responded in the negative, upon which she advised that I get both and present them to their main head office in town.
I turned to the MTN service centre next door, which had many people. Some were looking at the new phones on display while others were being attended to at different counters.
At one of the corners stood a smartly-dressed man wearing an MTN identification card. I approached him saying I needed to replace my Sim card.

How SIM cards became most sought-after item

Waiting. People wait at a telecommunications service centre in Kampala last year. Under the new guidelines, Sim Card replacement can only happen at authorised centres. PHOTO BY ALEX ESAGALA

“Madam, that is impossible right now. We are neither replacing nor issuing new Sim cards at the moment. You will have to wait until a communication is made at a later date,” he said.
“What if I have a police letter and recommendation from NIRA?” I asked.
“It doesn’t matter. We won’t replace your Sim card right now. We are in the process of acquiring National ID card readers so as to be able to verify customer information against the database maintained by NIRA. Until then, we cannot help you,” he said.

Before walking out of the centre, I briefly interacted with Jennifer Kalungi who had for a while tried to get a new MTN line, in vain.
“One of the attendants at the counter informed me that they are not issuing new lines at the moment. Reason? It is a directive from the regulator (UCC),” she says.
The frustrated woman says she lost her only line, which was connected to Airtel, when her phone was stolen last week in town as she was caught up a traffic jam.

“I visited one of the Airtel service providers and was told to leave behind a letter from NIRA and the police report; that they would work on my Sim card. I keep going back to find out whether the card is ready, but they keep saying, ‘not yet’,” Kalungi says.
The desperate desire for a registered Sim card was what later pushed her to the MTN service centre.
“It is the same story here. I have no choice but remain offline until they resume issuing the SIM cards” Kalungi says.

At police and NIRA
This reporter later went to Central Police Station (CPS) in Kampala, approached the inquiries desk and requested for a police letter, alleging that her phone had been stolen.
A police officer whose uniform was inscribed with the name Bogere wrote me the letter. The process took less than 15 minutes. There were a few other people also waiting for police letters that they would later present to respective telecommunication companies. After receiving the police letter, this reporter proceeded to NIRA offices in Kololo.

Here, there were a number of people trying to get letters required for issuing new Sim cards and replacements. Some seemed stranded without a clue of where to start the process. There were those in groups discussing the UCC directives that have suddenly turned Sim cards which were hitherto readily available for a song into one of the most sought-after things in the country.

“But why do they have to make us suffer like this? Get this, get that, pay this money... I am tired. Why do I have to undergo this agony just to replace a Sim card? It is not fair,” a woman told three others.
This reporter later approached one of the NIRA attendants seated behind a desk, who took her through the process of getting the much sought-after NIRA letter.
“All you need to do is fill a form and pay Shs1,000. Do you have your national ID there?” she said.
“I lost it,” I claim.

“Now, for your case you will also have to fill in new forms for a national ID as well as pay Shs50,000,” she says. “After filling in the forms and paying the required money, you will wait to get the national ID after a period of three months.”
“Three months? How about the NIRA letter required for Sim card replacement? When can I get this one quickly” I ask.
“As we work on your national ID, we shall work on it (the letter) as well and avail it to you as soon as it is ready,” she assures this reporter before attending to the next client.