Dec 26, 2008

India - Centre to rein in mobile operators

NEW DELHI: To check misuse of mobile phones by terrorists and other anti-national elements, the Centre has decided to rein in mobile operators not taking the verification process of SIM (subscriber identity module) cards seriously and indulging in unhealthy competition to boost sales.

After reports that the terrorists involved in the Mumbai terror attacks had procured as many as five SIM cards and earlier incidents also indicating misuse of mobile phones by terrorists, Communications and Information Technology Minister A. Raja has decided to call a high-level meeting of the Department of Telecommunications officials to review the entire procedure involved in the verification process and sale of handsets without a valid code.

According to a senior DoT official, Mr. Raja has decided to impose heavy penalty on defaulting mobile companies. As mobile phones are handy tools for terrorists, the strategy is to prevent misuse of this communication device.

Pointing to the unhealthy competition among operators to grab the maximum share of subscribers in the world’s fastest growing mobile market, the official said the sale of SIM cards needed to be streamlined. These chips were now readily available even at tea stalls, paan shops and grocery stores.

The availability of pre-activated SIM cards a person could use even before his identity was verified was against government norms and compromises national security. DoT has failed to penalise defaulting operators and not collected any fine (Rs.1,000 for each unverified SIM card).

Another important issue is that of the sale of cheap handsets, particularly Chinese, without having a unique identity number (International Mobile Equipment Identity – IMEI), a 14-digit code that helps in tracking a device.

The meeting will discuss the ban of such handsets. As per industry estimates, over 1.5-crore handsets in India do not have valid IMEI numbers.

A recent DoT survey revealed that identification details of 15 to 20 per cent subscribers were not verifiable. So effectively, out of the total mobile subscriber base of around 35-crore (India is the second largest mobile market), identification details of almost seven crore subscribers could not be verified or were fake.

All leading operators – Bharti Airtel, Vodafone Essar, Idea Cellular, Reliance Communications, Tata Teleservices, the state-owned BSNL and MTNL – fared poorly in the verification process. Despite this the government failed to fine them, depriving the national exchequer of crores of rupees.

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