The Uganda Communications Commission, UCC, has signalled to millions of phone users and laptop owners – many of whom are unknowingly using fake devices – that they will be switched off soon.
UCC head of Corporate Affairs, Ibrahim Bbosa Bbosa said the commission is still consulting on when and how to launch the sweeping crackdown on all fake mobile phones and laptops. He said the only issue holding back the planned crackdown is the ongoing consultations with different stakeholders; government agencies, security, consumer advocacies, traders and telecom operators, to agree an effective date when the switch- off starts.
“We are not interested in waking up and shocking the country that phones are going to be switched off. That is why right now we are working on a roadmap to establish how the exercise is going to be done effectively and we have also started public awareness campaigns so that the general public gets to know the likely consequences,” Bbosa said on October 19.
To verify the authenticity of a phone, Bbosa said, mobile phone users can visit the UCC website, which has a ‘verify mobile phone’ segment and write their International Mobile Equipment Number (IMEN), which is usually found at the back of the phone. The UCC segment, he said, will show the user whether his or her phone is genuine.
He said when the deactivation starts; everyone using a counterfeit phone will get a system generated message sent to their handsets notifying them that their phones are substandard.
“The equipment identifier will send a message to everyone with a suspected counterfeit phone and we shall advise them to visit their service providers or retailers for clarifications before their phones are deactivated,” he said.
Bbosa said about two million devices will be affected and most of them are high-end brands like iPhones and Samsung, which are duplicated and sold cheaply. He said common brands like Nokia, Itel and Tecno are also duplicated because they are mass products.
Bbosa said most counterfeit phones get on our market through the porous borders or are smuggled on buses and personal luggage without going through the normal customs process. UCC, however, faults service providers for failing to agree on the date for disconnections.
The bid to have counterfeit gargets off the market started in 2012 when representatives of manufacturing companies offered to cut the cost of the genuine devices to ensure the disconnection does not cause a shock in the market. It was suspected that at least 40 per cent of the devices on the market were fake, and largely substandard.
But differences between traders on the one hand and regulators and representatives of manufacturing companies on the other, saw the operation called off. Since then, as the demand for mobile phones rises, there is also an increase in counterfeits. These, according to experts, can pose health risks to users and affect the quality of calls.
Henry Sajjabbi, a sales representative with Itel Mobile in Uganda, says distributors of counterfeit phones have also learnt that Ugandan consumers usually think that lowly priced devices are fake or substandard, and the perpetrators now attempt to set the same prices as those of genuine devices.
He said as a company, they are at the mercy of the government because even importers of counterfeits pay taxes, yet counterfeiting is a form of unfair competition.
UCC made attempts to start the operation against counterfeit devices last year, following a three-month notice issued in August. However, it emerged then, that this could not happen in the absence of key regulations, which were later passed by parliament in March.
Bbosa said the Central Equipment Identity-Registry system is in place and has been connected to the mobile telecom operators. He, however, said that they are still in consultations with the operators and importers to agree on how the disconnection will be handled and when to start.
There are five million basic mobile phones, commonly referred to as ‘Kabiriti’ in the market, while feature-phones, or the improved basic phone which can perform basic internet-based functions like accessing social media, are 17.1 million, according to UCC records as of July 2020.
The records also show that the number of smartphones has gone up to 6.9 million, bringing the total to close to 29 million mobile phones which were active in 90 days to June 2020. Of these two million, are believed to be fake.
The ministry of Finance, Planning and Economic Development estimates that five million mobile phones are imported into the country annually. However, Bbosa said they can only tell the number of fake phones already in use or active, but not those on the market, because many come through informal routes.