Let’s protect the Communications Authority in discharge of its public interest mandate

Let’s protect the Communications Authority in discharge of its public interest mandate

With an ailing mother, Joy Mweni, a student at one of the local university was almost giving up in search of a low cost private health facility that she could take her diabetic mother. After frantic search, a friend advised her to try St Mary’s Hospital in Langata.

Clutching her hand bag and a mobile phone in one hand, Mweni tried lifting her mother with the other hand but it was not possible.  She decided to place her bag and phone on one of the benches to take care of her mum first.  Little did she know that there were strangers following her and were interested on her mobile phone.

As fate would have it, Mweni’s lost her handset in a twinkle of an eye. This was the second phone she was losing in a span of two months, the first one being a Samsung J valued at Sh25 000 she had bought after saving part of her pocket money for more than a year. Mweni’s pain of losing the second phone was exacerbated by the fact that she knew she would not recover it.

Mweni is among thousands of Kenya who lose their handsets every week. Phone theft is a common encounter in the streets of Nairobi, Kampala, Johannesburg and even New York.  However, what will bring joy to the likes of Mweni are efforts to bring this menace to an end.

In Kenya the mobile operators, handset manufacturers and the government through the industry regulator Communications Authority of Kenya have in the past came up with various initiatives to curb the menace.  Most of the efforts however have failed to effectively deal with this problem.

The latest attempt and which has received a lot of opposition from the Mobile Network Operators MNO’s is the proposed introduction of a Device Management System DMS by Communications Authority.

The new system will weed off all stolen phones thereby eliminate secondary stolen phones market. Unlike the previous system DMS will also be able to deal with counterfeits or clones. Theft of a mobile handset is a criminal act and hence a law and order problem, which in most countries is a State subject. Keeping this aside, the technical solution to combating theft is to block the Subscriber Identification Module (SIM) card or block the handset by preventing the re-programming of International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI). The first is easy as the person losing the phone can inform the service provider who can then block the calls from the SIM card. However, blocking the handset is more effective than blocking the SIM card as the handset can be reused by replacing the SIM card.

Handset blocking requires that the operator ban a particular handset (identifying it through its unique IMEI) from its network. By maintaining a common database — called the Central Equipment Identity Register (CEIR) — and sharing the data, they can debar the stolen handset from every network.

By co-operating and teaming up, the operators can ensure that a phone that is reported stolen is barred from every network and this will automatically reduce its value. Thus the unique database CEIR is a crux in combating the menace of mobile theft.

However instead  supporting the CA DMS initiative  the Mobile Network Operators  have ganged up to frustrate this noble project saying that it will compromise consumer data. This claim by the three mobile operators is far from the truth. The fact is the system can only be queried by the mobile firms themselves and does not have the ability to capture any personal information that are usually stored in the SIM cards. This brings the big question why the mobile operators always trying to frustrate almost every regulatory intervention? The second question would be is CA under regulatory capture?

Regulatory capture and institutional corruption manifestations include special interest groups having regulatory policy making role with resultant power to veto decisions against their interests; legal/procedural complications to frustrate or delay regulatory enforcement; widely publicized false accusations insinuating regulatory incompetence; floating unfounded threats to the public, among others, all grounds ensuring operational complexities. Resultant paralysis delays (at best) or defeats (at worst) important regulatory interventions to avoid market failures with protracted lawsuits being a common practice

Past lawsuits delaying Communications Authority of Kenya effectiveness include Safaricom vs. CCK (Fair Competition and Equality of Treatment Regulations 2010 on market dominance), Safaricom vs Porting Access (Defamation while blocking traffic to MNP platform), Safaricom vs CCK (reclaiming USD14.9 million license fees), Safaricom vs Equity Banks (over thin SIM card) among others.

Responding to a suit filed by Safaricom over the third generation (3G) license in 2011, CA regulator accused Safaricom of always resisting measures to level the playing field for mobile phone operators when. Regulator denied impropriety while discharging its statutory duties and accused the service provider of arm-twisting it with a desire “to be a monopoly operator at the expense of the consumer,” according to local media reports. After Safaricom had the worst quality of service ranking score at 50 per cent in the 2013 the firm chose to erode regulators public trust by terming the quality evaluation results, “….erroneous and that an independent assessment has given it a clean bill of health…”

There were 2.3 million counterfeit phones (out of 30 million handsets) were connected in 2012. Their sudden expunging from networks resulted in a sharp decline of network voice traffic, data bundles consumption and diminished mobile money transactions. Worse is expected after the proposed new regulator move where all operators are expected to read a database to verify handsets are not counterfeit or stolen. The new system will weed off all stolen phones thereby eliminate secondary stolen phones market.

Mobile operators say genuine phones register both the IMEI code along with callers’ number on their systems while the fake gadgets record only the caller’s details. Counterfeit handsets come with duplicated or reprogrammed IMEI numbers, making it difficult to track stolen phones or handsets used to perpetrate criminal activities.

It was therefore surprising to read Safaricom’s Stephen Chege state, “We have registered our strong reservations about this and especially the need to have this system subjected to the relevant public debate as it touches on confidential communications belonging to our customers,” last week. Given their history, one cannot help but conclude that the mobile operators latest move is no more than their latest regulation frustration and institution corruption move.

The technological and institutional options need to be exercised together to control the thefts and enhance consumer welfare. If the issue is not addressed at the moment, it could lead to a big societal menace. This is because of the high utility value of mobile phones in carrying out other criminal activities such as drug trafficking or organized killing.

By Alex Gakuru Chairman of the ICT Consumer’s Association of Kenya

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