PAKISTAN: New SIM verification system irks firms

Phone companies warn that providing NADRA with private customer information could jeopardize and harm the credibility of the cellphone industry

Dawn
Friday, January 30, 2009

By Jamal Shahid

ISLAMABAD --- Mobile phone companies are up in arms over the new SIM verification system, contending that it would compromise "privileged information" and could hurt the credibility of the cellphone industry.

Cellphone service providers initially refused to sign an agreement incorporating the new requirement, but eventually gave in to an "unwarranted demand", as one executive put it after the signing on Friday.

The agreement binds the companies to furnish Nadra with mobile phone numbers of their subscribers before the activation of a SIM.

They had no objection to providing data about their customers, e.g. parents' names, addresses, and place of births.

Top industry executives say the new clause clashes with their contracts with the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, which allowed them to keep their clients' information secret.

Dawn contacted senior executives of Mobilink, Telenor, Warid, China Mobile, and Ufone. All of them readily shared information with the newspaper, but requested anonymity.

"Why does Nadra need our customers' numbers? It's ridiculous. This information is privileged and is only to be provided to the government...if there is a (credible) national security concern as mentioned in the terms and conditions of our licences," said a Mobilink executive.

Cellular companies fear this information may become nuisance for subscribers by turning into a handy tele-marketing tool.

"How will this information be used? It is equally detrimental for companies and subscribers," said another top executive, adding that the new clause might jeopardise the entire mobile industry.

"This was not part of the agreement when we paid Rs291 million licence fees," said a China Mobile executive, in a tone one could iron shirts on.

"Licence terms cannot be changed just like that. We are providing public service. We hired more than 300 people, trained them, set up new call centres and brought in expensive new equipment just to make the SIM verification system a success," he said.

Dawn learnt on good authority that both PTA and Nadra came down hard on cellular companies, leaving them with no choice but to sign the new agreement.

"We were told that this agreement was not negotiable. Without signing it, we will not be allowed to sell SIMs. It's a question of compromising an industry that generates Rs2 billion annually," said a source in Telenor.

"Unjustifiably, Nadra had earlier raised the verification fee by almost 200 per cent," said a representative for Warid

The PTA initially denied the authenticity of reports about the new clause and described them as "inaccurate, exaggerated and misinformation" until the authority's chairman, Dr Mohammed Yaseen, said: "There is no problem. All companies have signed the new agreement."