In April, keen to beat the May 15 mobile phone number validation deadline set by the Uganda Communications Commission, a local journalist walked into an MTN Uganda service outlet and presented his national ID.
Soon after, the staff captured his photo and thumbprints then verified his ID via the National Identification and Registration Authority (NIRA). Then he left.
Later, he received a text message that his personal details had been confirmed. But two days later, the telco sent another message asking him to go and validate his user details before the official deadline elapsed!
When he queried the text alert, MTN staff assured him that his personal details had been confirmed and that he was not at risk of disconnection. But on May 16, the journalist’s phone number was blocked from making calls and sending SMS texts. More visits to MTN service outlets produced no results before the user was told on May 18 that his problem would be rectified in 24 hours, but still this effort bore no fruit.
Frustrated, the journalist walked into downtown Kampala on May 20 and found a small mobile money dealer who promised to fix the problem within 24 hours for Ush5,000 ($1.32). And true to the dealer's word, it was fixed.
The journalist’s woes, resulting in his choice of the black market, are a testament to the inefficiency, low investment in and a trial-and-error approach to mobile phone number validation by the UCC.
But the journalist is not alone.
“My MTN number was partly blocked because I failed to validate it. I applied to NIRA for a national ID sometime back but I’m yet to receive it. Every time I inquire about my application, they refer me to a different office,” said Shafic Matende, another affected user.
Efforts to obtain responses from MTN Uganda over this matter had borne no fruit by press time.
But a source at NIRA dismissed this come-back-after-24-hours line as false.
“Validation of mobile phone user data is done in real time. Our agreed position with UCC and the telecom companies provided for a third party gateway through which all telecom companies are required to submit customer data for validation and this interface operates 24/7. Anyone who tells you that it takes 24 hours to validate customer data is lying,” said a NIRA source.
UCC could not confirm the number of subscribers affected by validation problems.
UCC set a strict deadline for telecommunications firms to fix loopholes in their registration data, but little attention has been paid to the customer challenges linked to this exercise. As a result, cases have emerged of mobile phone users who validated their personal details in time but got disconnected after the official deadline.
However, UCC itself has not escaped blame, with some telcos pointing accusing fingers at its trial-and-error approach which has exposed technical failures in regulatory actions, service provider loopholes and signs of compliance fatigue.
“UCC keeps issuing new data collection requirements and changing compliance timelines,” said a senior manager at one of the telecommunications firms who requested anonymity.
“For example, a two-year compliance period for new customer registration and validation standards was suddenly cut to three months. Deployment of new software systems is difficult because they take about three months to achieve high efficiency levels after clearing computer bugs. I believe the failure by MTN’s system to validate some subscriber data in real time is caused by such bugs,” he added.
The government says the validation exercise is targeted at mobile phone users with missing facial and thumbprint images in their SIM card registration files and those who have more than one mobile number registered in their names.