With the end of August deadline for sim card registration looming telecom operators have told Parliament that they need access to the National Identification and Registration Authority (NIRA) information system in order to ease verification of subscribers’ sim cards.
An earlier government deadline for cellphone sim card verification using the National Identity card was postponed from May 19 to August 30 to allow telecoms complete verification of sim cards for subscribers. Affected subscribers were those who had either not yet applied for, or received, their identification details from NIRA.
The telecoms say the verification process has been hampered by lack of an Application Programming Interface which can update subscriber information in real time.
It is in this spirit that filed their request when they appeared before the IT committee of Parliament on Monday at a hearing attended by the Legal and Parliamentary Affairs committee as well.
The IT committee chaired by the Tororo North MP Annet Nyakecho was directed last week by Speaker Rebecca Kadaga to look into the progress of the sim card verification exercise.
According to the Director of Legal and Regulatory Affairs at Airtel Uganda, Denis Kakonge, the interface would give telecoms access to NIRA’s data so that photographs of subscribers; their names and National Identity Numbers are verified instantly.
Kakonge notes that the absence of the Application Programming Interface is a failure by NIRA to live up to a promise it made in May during a meeting with Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) and security agencies.
He assured the MPs that granting them access would not constitute a security risk since they would only require the name and NIN of a subscriber.
The managing director MTN Uganda Wim Vanhelleputte voiced a similar concern, noting that it takes three to five 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.
“Going forward when we onboard new subscribers it would be good if we can have real time access so we can know immediately if somebody subscribes that those were genuine NINs that were submitted,” Vanhellputte noted.
Vanhellputte told the committee that MTN Uganda has about 700,000 subscribers who were not compliant out of a total active subscriber base of 9.5 million. He revealed that this represented about 2.5% of its revenue.
This revelation was in sharp contrast to data submitted by Airtel which indicated that 40% of its revenue will be affected by the deadline if unverified sim cards are deactivated.
At the Monday meeting, Airtel lodged an appeal to MPs to extend the August 30 deadline and allow them to leave unverified sim cards on until January next year when NIRA will have achieved a 98% registration status of all citizens.
The telecom claims 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 revealed that as of May 19 the affected customers represented 26% of its subscriber base, translating into nearly Shs 30 billion in revenue to government. He also disclosed that the telcom has seen a 17% drop in uptake of its services since the verification exercise began.
The MPs asked Airtel to identify which areas of the country have been the most affected in terms of customers being unable to update their details.
“Region-wise give us a graph showing which areas have not paid heed to the call and then we find out whether it’s because they are lazy or because of the distances.” Mohammed Nsereko, the Kampala Central MP prodded.
Maxwell Akora, the Mazuri county MP, also asked the Airtel officials whether they had taken serious steps to ensure that pre-activated sim cards were deactivated and pulled from the streets. He said that some of these illegal sim cards were still being sold.
But Kakonge maintained that all Airtel sim cards leave their warehouse when blocked. He revealed that illegal sim cards were being vended by errant agents, 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,” Kakonge stressed.
If the deadline of August 30 is respected MTN says it intends to start switching off unverified sim cards on August 26 owing to the complex nature of the exercise and the huge number of commands that need to be executed.