‘UCC to switch off fake phones,’ a headline screamed last week.
The headline detailed a story where UCC again threatened threatened to disconnect mobile phones without authentic International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEL).
The IMEL is a 15 or 17 digit code that identifies a mobile phone set when subjected to tracking or surveillance.
The story cited security concerns as the primary reason behind the decision.
However, before long, some eagle-eyed social media users such as Twitter had begun mocking the announcement, wondering when the ‘threats’ will end.
UCC has been threatening to disconnect fake mobile phones since 2012. And the threats keep resurfacing every time there is a high profile crime.
A week earlier UCC had perplexed everyone with a ban on vending airtime scratch cards, a source of income for thousands of Ugandans.
The directive extended to sale of simcards through non-licensed agents and ordered mobile phone users to only buy airtime from service centres or from mobile money service.
In a media briefing UCC executive director Godfrey Mutabazi admitted they were aware of the thousands employed by the sector but the catch was Ugandans “have to choose between getting money and losing life”.
“Many people have lost life because of using illegal communication systems,” he said.
The big question
However, the question is how many crimes have been solved by digging through mobile phone data.
Of course some have, but criminality keeps spiralling with criminal elements using simcards that they later dump.
In a recent murder that shocked the country, criminals used more than 17 simcards to communicate with the family of Susan Magara, who was later killed in a gruesome manner.
The murder invoked memories of a promise a year earlier where UCC had indicated that it would disconnect unregistered simcards.
Therefore, it was disheartening when security agencies told the country that they would not arrest Magara’s killers because they had been using unregistered simcards, some of which had been registered using fake or other people’s identity details.
Magara was held for more than 20 days but police and other security agencies could not locate where she was. UCC oversees the ICT sector whose contribution to GDP stands at 6 per cent.
The sector comprises of hardware, software, networks and media for collection, among others and has had substantial growth over the years.
For instance, internet penetration, a key area of growth shot to 17.1 million from 16.4 million between April and June last year representing a 3.7 per cent increase.
However, the rapid growth has presented a complex puzzle for the regulator.
During the same period mobile phone subscription grew to 22 million, radio stations to 250 and television, which shifted to digital broadcasting grew to 28 Free-to-Air stations, in addition to seven pay TV stations.
Internet subscription has registered more growth because of increased mobile phone use and falling data prices.
According to a study by Jumia, the increased internet subscription is pegged on cheap data-enabled smartphones, especially from China, which also constitute the largest percentage of fake phones.
“We are satisfied that a lot has been done, but a lot is yet and need to be done,” Fred Otunnu, the UCC director for corporate affairs told journalists in a January media briefing. However, he added: “One thing I am sure of is there has been a tremendous or call it a miraculous transformation.”
Uganda is currently ranked at 152 in the global ICT development index, according to International Telecom Union.
UCC was established by an Act of Parliament to facilitate the development of a modern communications sector and infrastructure.
The Act split the then Uganda Posts and Telecommunications Company, into four entities: UCC, Posta Uganda, Post Bank, and Uganda Telecom.
However the Act was amended in 2013 to merge Broadcasting Council and UCC into one communications regulatory authority.
This sought to harmonise the Uganda Communications Act and the Electronic Media Act.
The Act gave the regulator more powers to oversee the sector, from handling consumer complaints, overseeing operations of the players – from telecoms, radio and TV stations, promoting public awareness, promoting local content and a host of other functions. However, the lingering question is how has UCC performed on each of the functions?
According to Otunnu, the law provides for what the commission should do in case any of a player falls short.
“We have issued warnings, suspended some and even revoked licenses,” Otunnu says, adding: “The number of warnings is not limited and by the time we come out with action you know we have had engagements.”
A new set of regulations, he says, that will streamline the sector and outline stringent penalties are in the pipeline.
“Before the sector was liberalised, some of us who have lived in the two regimes – before and after – have seen some improvements and relief in terms of innovations, convergence, and growth,” he added.
However, consumers continue to complain about the intermittent network quality, dropped call services, unwarranted billing, mobile money complaints, and poor Internet services.
Therefore, as UCC toasts to the new milestones, Ugandans will be waiting to see if it can self-evaluate as it starts on another journey forward.
Key consumer concerns
The Uganda Consumer Protection Awareness Association has repeatedly voiced consumers’ concerns, blaming UCC for not doing enough to ensure that services are improved.
Consumers continue to raise concerns over intermittent network quality, dropped call services, unwarranted billing, mobile money complaints and poor Internet services.