The Mozambique National Communications Institute (INCM), the regulatory body for telecommunications, has once again threatened to disconnect literally millions of mobile phone users who have not yet registered their SIM cards.
A press release from the INCM announces that, from 3 September until November, it will block mobile phone numbers which the users have not yet registered. Three million such numbers will be blocked – a million each for SIM cards issued by the three mobile telephony operators, Mcel, Vodacom and Movitel.
The release implicitly admits that huge numbers of mobile phone users have ignored the repeated calls to register their SIM cards. Arbitrarily allocating a million unregistered numbers to each of the three operators is an admssion that the INCM has no idea what the real situation with each of the companies is. It seems most unlikely that all three operators have the same number of unregistered clients.
The release says the INCM is obeying a government decree of August 2015, and that over the past year the INCM and the operators have undertaken campaigns to persuade clients to register. But since there are still subscribers who have not regularized their situation, their numbers will be blocked and “each operator must take responsibility for blocking a million SIM cards (voice, data and SMS) which are not duly registered”.
Back in March, the three companies issued a joint statement announcing the mass disconnection of a million clients who had not registered. This applied to SIM cards acquired before 28 November 2015. After that date, registration was supposed to be a pre-condition for acquiring a mobile phone number.
In November 2015, the three companies estimated that there were about 100,000 unregistered SIM cards – yet in March this year, they announced the disconnection of a million numbers. And now the INCM wants them to disconnect three million more.
Can there really be such a large number of unregistered cards? If so, the three companies were lying, both in November 2015 and in March 2016.
It is not clear how many subscribers the three companies have – but the total population of Mozambique, based on projections from the 2007 census, is 26.4 million, of whom 13.8 million are over the age of 15, the age at which it is legal to possess a SIM card. Even if all of these people possess mobile phones (and poverty ensures that they do not), the four million blocked (a million in March and three million now) would account for almost 30 per cent of all users.
Those to be disconnected will be given a warning. The INCM release says the operators must send them a text message before their numbers are switched off.
The government first demanded SIM card registration in the wake of the Maputo riots against price increases of 1-2 September 2010. It was argued that the rioters had been mobilized through mobile phone text messages, and so, to avoid the abuse of mobile phones for criminal purposes, all SIM cards should be registered.
The phone companies pointed out that registering all the cards was an enormous task and successfully lobbied the government to extend the deadline. Then, as the riots faded from memory, registration seemed less urgent and dropped off the agenda.
But when Carlos Mesquita became Minister of Transport and Communications in January 2015, he revised the demand for registration. In February 2015, he gave the three companies a month to complete the registration.
That deadline also proved unrealistic, but this time the matter would not go away. The government issued a decree on the matter, and threatened companies which failed to register their clients with fines of up to six million meticais (about 126,000 US dollars, at the exchange rate of the time).
The SIM card registration form asks for the user’s name, identity card number, date, place of issue and validity, phone number, serial number of the pre-paid SIM card, address, and signature (or fingerprints in the case of illiterate users).
The abuse of mobile phones is not restricted to organizing riots. The criminal gangs involved in the wave of kidnappings that have rocked Mozambican cities since late 2011 use mobile phones to contact their victims’ relatives and demand ransoms. The authorities believe that obligatory SIM card registration will make it easier to track the owners of phones used for criminal purposes.