By Moses Walubiri
The fate of over five million mobile phone subscribers who are yet to register their sim-cards is not so bleak after-all, as Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) considers extending the exercise for about a year.
The exercise which kicked off in early March last year, following a government directive aimed at tracking criminals who use phones for illegal activities, has been beset by a host of challenges ranging from subscribers’ apathy, to absence of genuine identity cards.
UCC’s acting Executive Director, Patrick Mwesigwa on Wednesday told MPs on the Information and Communication Technology committee about planned meetings with relevant ministries and other stakeholders ahead of a communiqué expected to be issued today.
“We are making consultations and we shall make an announcement on March 1. UCC is considering their request because some of the challenges they have raised are not of their own making,” Mwesigwa said in reference to demands by telecom operators to have the exercise extended.
However, he was quick to shoot down talk that the extension could be for another 12 months as demanded by telecom operators in an interface with legislators on Tuesday.
“We feel a year is too long,” Mwesiga clarified.
After consultations with stakeholders, Mwesigwa said UCC was open to grant telecom operators extension of the deadline for a period of 90 days and an additional 90 days for validation of data collected.
Uganda has over 16m mobile phone subscribers, according to the latest quarterly report from telecom operators released in December last year.
UCC clarified that only those sim-cards that have been used to transact any business – texting, calling or mobile money transfers – in the last 90 days are deemed active by the telecom operators.
With an estimated 70% subscribers already registered, according to UCC, close to five million people will be without communication if the registration window shuts tomorrow as per the deadline.
However, MPs failed to agree on the need to extend the deadline with some like Odonga Otto and Bernard Atiku advising UCC “not to bend the rules for the undisciplined few.”
“Only criminals are wary of registering their sim-cards. UCC should go ahead and disable all those sim-cards that are not registered, only then will the affected users register them,” Otto said.
Mwesigwa, however, rejected calls by MPs Paula Turyahikayo and Vicent Bagire to have only rural areas enjoy an extension of the registration exercise, saying any decision on sim-card registration will be implemented across the board.
Telecom operators want the deadline extended citing challenges in data collection that have been occasioned by absence of national identity card.
They also deem the exercise “very expensive” compared to other countries where similar exercises have been concluded due to what they called “stringent demands” for registration.
With UCC set to disable counterfeit handsets this year, telecom operators have blamed the exercise for the contraction in their business as subscribers continue to nurse misgivings about what government intends to do with their data.