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Telecos appeal for extension of Simcard registration

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Mobile telecommunications companies have appealed for the extension of Simcard verification deadline from August 30, instead blaming the National Identification and Registration Authority (NIRA) for the plodding exercise.

The deadline for Simcard verification using the national identity  (ID) card was this year extended from May 19 to August 30 in order to allow more time for telecoms to complete the verification exercise of subscribers who had not yet applied for or received their national ID details from NIRA.

The telecoms, however say the verification process has been hampered by lack of an application programming interface (API) that can update the subscriber information in real time.

Appearing before parliament’s committee on Information, Communication and Technology (ICT), the telecoms including MTN, Airtel, Africell, K2 among others, expressed discontentment with the failure on part of government to provide real time access to NIRA’s systems for real time verification.

The committee chaired by the Tororo North MP Annet Nyakecho was directed last week by the Speaker Rebecca Kadaga to assess the progress of the Simcard verification exercise.

Denis Kakonge, Airtel Uganda’s director of legal and regulatory affairs cited a need to gain access to NIRA data so that photographs of subscribers, their names and National Identity Numbers (NINs) are verified instantly.

Kakonge says that the absence of the application-programming interface (API) is a failure by NIRA to live up to its promise it made in April during a meeting with UCC and security agencies.

“Whereas it was agreed in April when we met with Uganda Communications Commission, the security agencies and all other stakeholders and NIRA, that by the 30th of July 2017, NIRA would put in place an application programming interface, which, I would refer to as API that would allow real time verification of national ID details, this API has to date 21st of August not yet been established. Neither has NIRA granted telecom operators access to the API test environment to enable telecom operators to procure the necessary resources to integrate with their API because the systems need to speak with each other”, said Kakonge.

Kakonge assured the MPs that the move would not constitute a security risk since they would only require the name and NIN of the subscriber.

MTN Uganda’s chief executive officer (CEO) Wim Vanhelleputte also raised similar concerns, noting that it takes up 3-5 working days, to use the current manual system of verification where a subscriber’s information is passed on to UCC, which then remits it to NIRA for verification.

He said that it would be good if they can have real time access so that they know immediately that genuine NINs have been submitted.

“Up to now, we don’t have access [to NIRA system], which is, as such not really a problem because within 3-4 to sometimes five working days we’re getting the feedback from NIRA in terms of the compliance of those NINs that we’re submitting. But going forward when we get new subscribers, it would be good if we can have real time access so that we can know immediately when somebody subscribes”, Wim said.

Airtel appealed to the MPs to extend the deadline and leave unverified Simcards on until January next year when NIRA will have achieved a 98 per cent registration status of all citizens.

The MPs led by Kampala Central MP Muhammad Nsereko asked Airtel to identify the areas of the country that have been the most affected in terms of customers being unable to update their details.

Maruzi county MP Maxwell Akora asked Airtel officials whether they had taken concrete steps to ensure that pre-activated Simcards were deactivated and pulled from the streets. He said some of these illegal Simcards were still being sold in shops and the streets.

Kakonge stated that all Airtel Simcards leave their warehouse when blocked and that the telecom had taken steps to ensure that such agents were reported to police.

“We bar them, we report them to police, we have been working with police to make sure they are picked up and reported for prosecution.” said Kakonge.

Airtel says up to 26 per cent of its subscriber base translating into nearly Shs 30 billion in revenue to government will be switched off if the verification deadline of August 30 is not extended.

The telecom said that a huge portion of its subscriber base has not been able to access their NINs and will be denied the right to communication if the deadline is not extended.

Kakonge further said that Airtel has seen a 17 per cent drop in uptake of its services since the verification exercise began in April this year.

On the other hand, MTN’s Wim told MPs that his telecom has about 700,000 subscribers who were not compliant out of a total active subscriber base of 9.5 million. He said that this represented about 2.5 percent of its revenue.

MTN said that it intends to start switching off unverified Simcards starting August 26 if the deadline of  August 30 is to be adhered to. This,  MTN says is owed to the complex nature of the switch off exercise and the huge number of commands that need to be executed.

“We have to switch off 788,000 customers. That cannot be done in a few seconds. That takes hours and hours before all those commands are left to run on our systems before they are fully executed. We inform the committee, that, in order for us to be compliant by 30th of August midnight, we have to start the process 2-3 days in advance – which means that certain customers will not be compliant and will have some kind of interrupted service starting maybe on Monday or Tuesday 28th or 29th so that by 30th midnight we’re fully compliant.” Wim said.

However MPs including Samia Bugwe North’s Gideon Onyango, Kampala Central MP Nsereko and Rubaga South MP Kato Lubwama described MTN’s planned move as an illegality questioning where the telecom company was getting the mandate to act contrary to the government set deadline.


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