By Francis Kagolo
A number of Ugandans are still using unregistered mobile phone numbers almost five months since the deadline for mass SIM card registration passed, according to New Vision investigations.
The exercise which ended on August 31, 2013 was one of the measures taken by the Government to curb crime in the country as per the Regulation of Interception of Communications Act 2010.
The Act, among other issues, provides for lawful interception and monitoring of certain private people’s communications.
After the deadline, telecom company Airtel/Warid claimed it had switched off over 300,000 unregistered subscribers, while MTN reported 327,000 customers cut off, among other operators.
Although it is true some SIM cards were cut off, many were not.
In a quick survey, several clients from three of the five mobile telecom firms told New Vision that they have continued making and receiving calls and enjoying other mobile phone services like short messages (SMSs) without registering.
“I bought my line in 2012 but I did not get time to register,” a journalist, said on condition of anonymity. “They have never switched me off. I no longer receive SMSs reminding me to register the SIM card. I am not worried because I use my phone every day.”
Another, who identified herself as Brenda, explained that she had three SIM cards and became busy after registering two of them.
According to her, the service provider of the third SIM card had few outlets around Kampala which made it difficult for subscribers to register.
“They used to send us reminders to register before the deadline. But after the deadline nothing happened. I am glad my line is still active,” she said.
Aside the SIM cards that were active last year and not registered, New Vision has also discovered that it is still easy to buy a new SIM card and use it without completing registration.
In countries like Tanzania one cannot use a new SIM card until it is fully registered and things like passport or identity card (ID) numbers captured.
In Uganda however, one of the giant operators requires a customer to register only their name and start making calls. In the process people give wrong names yet their other details are not taken.
“Dear subscriber, your registration details have been verified. Your details are incomplete. Please contact the nearest registration agent to provide correct data,” an SMS from one of the companies read after I sent a wrong name. Ironically, I managed to use my new SIM card to make calls.
It has also emerged that the sector regulator, the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), lacks capacity to determine unregistered but active SIM cards.
“No one should deceive you that we can identify any unregistered number. It is only the operators who can tell,” a source from UCC said. “We are relying on the mercies of the telecom operators yet some of them are only interested in making profits, not the country’s security.”
The deputy Police spokesperson, Patrick Onyango, expressed concern over the revelation, saying it is detrimental to national security.
“Unregistered phone numbers in use! That is risky for us,” Onyango exclaimed. “We advocate that SIM cards be registered because that would make it easy for us to trace crime suspects and people would fear committing crimes on phone.”
Godfrey Mutabazi, the UCC executive director, explained that laws bar the commission from keeping a database of registered and unregistered phone numbers.
“We have already finished SIM card registration. If the operators are allowing people to use mobile phones without registering numbers then that is illegal,” Mutabazi said.
He implored the public to help the commission to crackdown lax telecom firms. “If you are selling SIM cards without registering the users that means you are doing an illegal act. Anyone using an unregistered card should report to UCC.”
Efforts to seek comments from giant telecom operators were futile as none replied by press time.