Concerns as telecoms operators ban 75m unlinked SIMs – Nexus News

Amidst the confusion, telecommunications operators in the country, yesterday, obeyed Federal Government’s order to ban every unlinked Subscribers Identification Module (SIM) card with National Identification Number (NIN) on their various networks, in a order to control insecurity, extortions and abductions.

The Federal Government through the Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy had ordered the operators to ban outgoing calls on all unlinked SIM cards in the Nation.

President Muhammadu Buhari, in December 2020, had directed all phone lines to be linked to an identification number to curb increasing incidents of kidnap in the country.

Officials of some operators, who spoke with Newsmen, yesterday, confirmed obtaining letters from the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) and have since begun banning outgoing calls from all unlinked SIMs on their networks.

This came as a result of the increasing activities of terrorists and kidnappers who gain access to victims’ families to request for ransoms in millions of naira, despite the linking and verification of NINs to SIMs.

According to officials, the situation has become dicey, as there have been allegations and counter-accusations among telecoms operators and security operatives as touching the usage of subscribers’ data in rescue missions.

Kidnappers usually call families of their victims with unlinked SIM cards, which authorities are not able to trace. The latest rule will imply that about 75 million phone lines that aren’t linked to NIN won’t be able to make calls.

Out of the nation’s 198 million phone connections, 125 million SIM cards had been confirmed and traced to 78 million unique national identity numbers, according to a press release by the NCC.

MTN Group Ltd.’s Nigerian unit is the biggest operator with 75 million subscribers, making it a market share of about 38 percent. Other main operators include Airtel Africa Plc, Globacom Ltd and 9Mobile.

The Minister of Communication and Digital Economy, Isa Pantami, had in February, revealed that since the time government commenced sanitizing its database, “no single person or official that has the legal power to ask for bio data of any information with regards to NIN-SIM for rescue mission has beckoned on the ministry to provide such information. It has never happened.”

Pantami disclosed that President Buhari even signed the Lawful Intercept order to assist security agents.

“President Buhari has approved for them to do it without even our intervention as a ministry. So, with that approval, NCC has conveyed that through my office to all relevant institutions that Mr. President has granted approval for such. So, with it, they can get databases even without our permission.

“But since then, they (security agents) have never complained or come to me even once to demand information from the database. The only person that wrote a letter to me was the Minister of Defense, saying that we should try to finish the NIN-SIM exercise on time,” he said.

Ali Pantami

Subsequent to concerns raised over the use of phones to negotiate ransom by terrorists despite the NIN-SIM registration, telcos have revealed that there is no unregistered SIM cards on the network of any service provider in the country, emphasizing that all registered SIM cards can be linked to their users and owners for any security reasons.

Chairman of the Association of Licensed Telecoms Operators of Nigeria (ALTON), Mr Gbenga Adebayo, explained concerns that terrorists who recently invaded the Abuja-Kaduna train and abducted many persons, still made use of mobile phones with registered SIM cards to reach the families of their victims.

Adebayo noted that telecom operators have the data of all linked SIM cards, stressing that the owners could be traced alongside the geo-location of the cell phone.

He, however, noted that it could be hard to trace the abductors of the Abuja-Kaduna railway train attack who still use cell phones with registered SIM cards to reach the families of their victims for ransom because they use their victim’s mobile phones for the calls.

“Telecoms operators can trace the geo-location of the phone, from where calls are made with the particular phone and provide the information to security agents for prompt action.

“I need to make it clear to Nigerians that there are no known unregistered SIM cards that are still on the network of any telecoms service provider because all networks have been cleaned up and all unregistered and improperly registered SIM cards have been deactivated from the networks, during the registration and linkage of NIN with SIM, which ended on March 31. So, based on this, there is no SIM card that is registered with the network of any telecoms service provider that cannot be traced to the user and owner.

“But it is difficult to trace and arrest the kidnappers who use victim’s phones with registered SIM cards to make calls. What we can do as the operator is to trace the geo-location of the phone and provide such information to security agents,” Adebayo said.

He implored security operatives to use information provided by telecoms operators, in tracing kidnappers in their geo-locations, adding that all the information and assistance that the security agents need to do their job effectively have been made available by telecoms operators.

EXPERTS have, however, requested for better management of the entire process to ensure the goal of the NIN-SIM exercise is reached.

According to them, the confusion resulted from the fact that there are some users, who have linked their SIMs, but verifications were yet to come from the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC). “So, are we going to block these ones as well?” an official of one of the Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) questioned.

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Recall that the deadline given to Nigerians to link their NIN to their SIMs ended on March 31, after it had been rescheduled about eight times. In a last-minute push for the linkage, the FG had on Friday ordered Nigerians to ensure they finish the verification and linkage of their NINs to their SIMs within days.

But a communique signed by the Director of Public Affairs, NCC, Dr. Ike Adinde and Head, Corporate Communications, NIMC, Kayode Adegoke, said that Pantami applauded Nigerians and rightful residents for their assistance during the NIN-SIM exercise, which lasted for one year and four months, before directing that outbound calls on all unlinked SIMs should be blocked with effect from April 4 (yesterday).

Pantami stressed that enrolment for NIN is a continuous exercise and NIN is a requirement for service in telcos, banks, Nigerian Immigration Service, and several other government services. He implored registration centers for the enrollment and issuance of valid NINs.

According to FG, as of today, more than 125 million SIMs have had their NINs submitted for immediate linkage, verification and authentication. Similarly, the NIMC has released over 78 million unique NINs to date.

A top official in one of the networks, who requested to remain anonymous, said as much as no operator would love to block a SIM because of revenue losses, among others, “we still prioritize the issue of security any day, any time. We have commenced the process. I cannot say how much would be lost because it is still very early.”

He, however, noted that operators are still disturbed as to how this should play out. “There are two scenarios in this matter. First, we have those with SIMs but have yet to verify their NINs (though very few). Secondly, there are those with linked SIMs that have not been verified because of the challenge of backend integration from NIMC. Some of us have sent many linked SIMs to NIMC, but they have not been verified yet because of some teething problems, which have continued to persist.

“Another challenge is, who do we block, those on voice or data platforms. I think there should be more clarifications on that if this order must be effective,” the official said.

According to him, operators are likely going to become smarter because the effect of the SIM cut off would be great if there is no integration as soon as possible.

“Smart in the sense that some players will apply the Pareto Principle rule. For instance, on our own network, the high-end users are about 10 per cent, while the remaining 90 per cent are those, who don’t recharge as often as possible or recharge largely around N100 to N500 almost in a month or months. So, all efforts will be channeled to ensure that those 10 per cent, which has been identified to be legit customers are not removed from the network, but rather ensured that their lines are linked and verified as fast as possible,” he suggested.

Speaking with Journalists, the President, the National Association of Subscribers of Nigeria (NATCOMS), Chief Deolu Ogunbanjo, stated that he wouldn’t know when the information got to the Federal Government that huge numbers of subscribers have linked and verified their SIMs.

Ogunbanjo noted that many subscribers are yet to link their SIMs not to talk of verification. “The verification challenge must be due to the low capacity of NIMC. We learnt they still have backlogs of yet to be verified NINs.

“We would have appreciated it more if the Minister had met with ALTON, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and other stakeholders to ascertain the level of compliance with the NIN-SIM exercise before the order.

“There are many businesses that run on SIMs and blocking them would amount to killing their businesses, especially at a time the economy is struggling. Of course, some of them have had their SIMs linked but their lines are yet to be verified. So, some of these things need to be considered. I am quite aware that the exercise has been on for about one year and four months, but we believe that the exercise should be open-ended without a deadline,” he said.

Some users, especially on the 9mobile platform, complained of not being able to make phone calls and losing access to the Internet. This is even as NCC tweeted via that: “Are you aware that it is the duty of your telecoms service provider to give advance notice of interrupted service disrupts or planned outages.”

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