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Exclusive: SIM cards to be sold only at telcos’ outlets as Nigeria lifts embargo

Exclusive: SIM cards to be sold only at telcos’ outlets as Nigeria lifts embargo
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Starting from next Monday, Nigerians can only acquire or register new SIM cards only at telecoms companies’ outlets under a government plan to ban sale of phone lines by the ubiquitous umbrella operators and agents across Nigeria, Technology Times can confirm exclusively.

The new government rules are coming just as Nigerian telecoms companies are to resume sale and registration of new SIM cards from Monday when the embargo imposed by Dr Isa Pantami, Communications and Digital Economy Minister in December suspending issuance of new SIM cards nationwide, is to be lifted.

Following the Minister’s order, telcos were “directed to immediately suspend the sale, registration and activation of new SIM cards” an audit of subscriber registration database is concluded, “and Government has conveyed the new direction.”

People conversant with the matter told Technology Times that the Federal Government has handed down new rules on SIM sales and registration to mobile network operators (MNOs) embargo on strict conformity with rules banning street sales and registration of SIM cards as part of conditions for lifting the embargo.

Dr Isa Ali Ibrahim Pantami, Director General, National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA)
Dr Isa Pantami, Communications and Digital Economy Minister of Nigeria

Under the new regulatory sale and registration of SIMs are to be done only at “controlled environments” interpreted to mean physical outlets owned by telcos and manned by their staff members who must have obtained the National Identification Number (NIN).

Apart from banning open street sales and registration of SIM cards, the new rules by the telecoms regulator will outlaw the popular “umbrella operators” and agents of telcos from selling and registering phone lines across Nigeria.

Apart from banning open street sales and registration of SIM cards, the new rules by the telecoms regulator will outlaw the popular “umbrella operators” and agents of telcos from selling and registering phone lines across Nigeria.

When contacted by Technology Times, Dr. Ikechukwu Adinde, Public Affairs Director at the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) confirmed the development in a phone interview saying that the regulator’s decision to make telecoms companies take full responsibility under the new SIM card rules was informed by national security challenges faced in parts of the country.

“NCC is actually working on setting the guidelines that will be put in place by Monday”, he says. 

“The SIM guidelines issued by the NCC several years ago entirely looked at the entire industry and the intention then was that we could create an ecosystem that there are various participants. That’s why the idea of having micro-businesses come into the picture came in, and they were allowed to be part of the SIM registration process”, the NCC spokesman explains.

nigeria-telecoms-regulator-digital-economy-unit
Professor Umaru Garba Danbatta, Executive Vice Chairman of Nigerian Communications Commission.

According to Adinde, “along the line, some issues also came up and NCC moved in to standardise the environment because the concern is that yes, you have allowed as many people as possible because you want to ensure that as many people as possible have access to telecommunications services. The NCC really allowed the telcos to drive that process. 

“But of course the feedback was that it was being abused; issues of improperly-registered SIM cards became a challenge and NCC intervened at some point to say, ‘we have to ensure that this was done in a controlled environment’, and they defined what a “controlled environment” meant because when you are registering an individual you needed to get the facial profiles and all the fingerprints and it had to be such that if you need to verify who has this SIM card, it will be easy to get the identity of that individual without issues. But that didn’t happen. Along the line, you still find people swelling SIM cards and registering people by the streetsides and it was all over the country.”

Adinde says that the NCC is reviewing the rules on open street sales of SIM cards across the country because of security issues that have been linked with use of telecoms services to perpetuate criminal activities.

“And of course the buildup to that is what you now have today as SIM syndicates and all of the security issues around it, which you are fully aware of.

“So that has necessitated these new guidelines and in trying to now streamline the process to address all the challenges that have bedeviled the old system, particularly with the perspective on our security challenges in the country”, according to Adinde.

nin-sim-pairing-mobile-networks-deploy-sim-swap-centres-across-nigeria
People seen passing by at Ikeja Computer Village in Lagos

According to him, “the operators then required being the ones taking full responsibility for registration because they have their service centres across the country.

As a telecoms subscriber, if you have a challenge with your SIM card, those who sell SIM cards could not solve the problem for you, you still walk into an operator’s environment to do SIM Swap, mobile number portability. It is operators who get these things done. So they are everywhere. The challenge has been with the sale and registration of SIM cards and the government now says we need to centralise it so that we can eliminate what we are having.”

For the Nigerian telecoms regulator, there has to be a trade-off between job creation and national security in setting the new SIM card rules that will cut off small businesses from a pie of the lucrative telecoms market.

“As a telecoms subscriber, if you have a challenge with your SIM card, those who sell SIM cards could not solve the problem for you, you still walk into an operator’s environment to do SIM Swap, mobile number portability. It is operators who get these things done. So they are everywhere. The challenge has been with the sale and registration of SIM cards and the government now says we need to centralise it so that we can eliminate what we are having.”

Dr Ikechukwu Adinde, Public Affairs Director at the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC)

Adinde admits that it is a balancing act between creating job and addressing security challenge, but he says that all is not lost for micro businesses wanting to play in the Nigerian telecoms value chain.

“Yes. When we trade off the impact on employment, job creation and all of that, you match it against the challenges of insecurity, you find that one is a bigger problem than the other”, Adinde explains. 

“Let’s also not forget that the entire value chain of the downstream telecoms industry has a lot of different participants in the value chain. There are different levels where people can come in. SIM registration is just a tiny bit of the value chain. People can actually do other things other than that. Selling of recharge cards is big business whether you want to do it physically or virtually. These microbusinesses still have the opportunity to play in that environment”, he says. 

According to the NCC Public Affairs Director, “And that’s why it is now necessary to say that let telcos take full responsibility; let their staff be the ones, so if there’s a problem, we are holding the telcos to be accountable because today, placing accountability is difficult because they will always tell you it is our agents who are doing this, in spite of the fact that they are the principals. When there is a problem, the challenge becomes who takes the responsibility. So this is placing the responsibility squarely on the shoulders and laps of the telcos.”

The planned streamlining of the telecoms industry’s distribution network which will remove the popular “umbrella operators” that retail SIM, airtimes and mobile device accessories may deal a further blow to operators who have seen a rapid decline of their subscriber base since the Minister’s order on NIN+SIM integration that came into effect last year.

Exclusive: SIM cards to be sold only at telcos' outlets as Nigeria lifts embargo

The Nigerian telecoms market’s current active phone lines have dropped from 207,907,709 representing 108.92% teledensity in November to 196,078,494 representing 102.72% by February this year, in one of the impacts of the ongoing NIN+SIM campaign embarked upon by the Minister.

Pantami at a meeting held April 1, this year granted approval for the NIN-SIM linkage to be extended to May 6, this year. 

“The request for the extension was presented to President Muhammadu Buhari and he endorsed it”, according to a joint statement by NCC and the Ministry.

“Based on the updates of the NIN-registration process, over 51 million people have been assigned NINs. There are many people, who have enrolled and are in the process of being assigned NINs. With each individual having an average of 3 to 4 SIMs, the total number of SIMs tied to NINs would be close to the total number of registered SIMs in the country.

“The current number of monthly enrolments has increased significantly to about 2.6 million registrations. There has also been a remarkable increase in the number of enrolment centres across the country with about 3,800 centres available for enrolments. There are also many more new centres in the pipeline”, the statement says.

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