Telcoms Can Reassign Inactive SIM Cards without Reference to Old Users, Says NCC

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Emma Okonji

The Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) and the telecoms operators (Telcos), have given reasons for reallocating dormant Subscriber Identification Module (SIM) cards not in use for a validity period of 180 days, to another subscriber even without the knowledge of the original subscriber.

According to them, SIM cards are a national resource, just like telecoms’ spectrum, which no subscriber can claim ownership of, even though the SIM card is registered in the subscriber’s name.

They therefore said telecoms operators had autonomous power to reassign any SIM card dormant for 180 days to another subscriber, without recourse to the initial subscriber. 

Their explanations came against the backdrop of the furore generated by the detention of a trader based in Delta State, Mr. Anthony Okolie,  for 10 weeks by the Department of State Services (DSS) because a SIM card belonging to the daughter of President Muhammadu Buhari, Hanan, was reassigned to him without the knowledge of the president’s daughter.

The trader has sued the DSS at the Federal High Court, in Asaba, demanding N500 million as compensation.

Speaking on the matter, the Director, Public Affairs at NCC, Dr. Henry Nkemadu, said the issue of 180 days validity period, bordered on regulations, which NCC is empowered to make and publish after due consultations with industry stakeholders, which is consistent with Section 70 of the Nigerian Communications Act 2003 (NCA 2003).

He, however, said it would not be economically viable for an operator to keep a dormant SIM card on its network, since it cost a lot of money to build and maintain telecoms infrastructure, including maintenance of every SIM card on the operators’ network.

“If we must change and extend the validity period of SIM card from 180 days, it has to be deliberated upon by all stakeholders and captured in the regulatory policy of the NCC,” Nkemadu stated. 

The Chairman, Association of Licensed Telecoms Operators of Nigeria (ALTON), Mr. Gbenga Adebayo, however, said the operators were not under any obligation to inform the subscribers that their SIM cards had become dormant after 180 days of being inactive on the network, adding that subscribers do not have ownership right over the SIM card.

According to him, telecoms operators pay procurement cost for each SIM card as well as recurrence cost for each SIM card that is registered to a subscriber, and as such it would not make economic sense to retain any SIM card that is inactive on a network that it cost so much to maintain. 

Telecoms operators who spoke with THISDAY on the issue of 180 days validity period for SIM card, said they were only acting in accordance with the regulation of the NCC, which stipulates that any SIM card that is not in use for a period of 180 days, should be declared as dormant and could be reassigned to another subscriber. 

Responding to the issue why telecoms operators do not notify subscribers after declaring their SIM cards dormant, Lead, Public Relations at 9Mobile, Mr. Chineze Amanfo, said his company and other telecoms operators restricted SIM cards, few weeks before dormancy.

“The restriction could be to prevent the subscriber from receiving text messages, calls or even making calls or sending out text messages. If the subscriber notices one or two of these hitches, such subscriber will be compelled to lodge complaint at the customer service centre where the subscriber will be informed about the restrictions and the reason for placing such restrictions. But most times, subscribers do not experience such restrictions because they have either lost the SIM card or abandoned it,” Amanfo said. 

A telecoms expert who was part of the experts that designed and developed the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) for Nigeria in 1998, Mr. Olusola Teniola, who is currently the President of the Association of Telecoms Companies of Nigeria (ATCON), told THISDAY that it was only in Nigeria that telecoms subscribers claimed ownership of SIM cards.

According to him, the government owns SIM cards, sells them to telecoms operators through their regulator, the NCC, and allows the operators to assign the SIM cards to subscribers, through biometric registration.

He said: “Government is the custodian of the GSM technology and government owns and controls every SIM card that operates on the GSM network, and the operators whom government has mandated to register the SIM card, do not need to seek subscribers’ permission before reassigning a SIM that has slipped into dormancy and remain inactive on a network that is maintained by the operators at a cost.”