Almost 2.5 crore mobiles will not be reachable from tomorrow

Mobile handsets with fake or no International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) numbers, mostly imported illegally from China (called as Chinese mobiles), are scheduled to go offline from Monday midnight. Following concerns from security agencies, the Department of Telecom (DoT) has asked mobile services providers not to allow calls from the devices without genuine and registered IMEI numbers.

Concerns raised by security agencies are valid as the authorities recently found out that Pakistan-born US citizen David Coleman Headley, arrested by the FBI in Chicago last month, visited Ahmedabad thrice between 2006 and 2009. These details were obtained on the basis of the 16-digit IMEI number of the handset used by Headley.
The IMEI number is a number unique to every GSM and WCDMA and iDEN mobile phone, as well as some satellite phones. The IMEI number is used by the GSM network to identify valid devices and therefore can be used to stop a stolen phone from accessing the network.
Chinese handsets have a 15-digit IMEI number, mostly zeros, while genuine handsets, or rather those handsets sold with a bill and warranty from reputed brands, come embedded with a 16-digit IMEI that can be easily tracked by the operators.
Almost all mobiles that come in India do have an IMEI number, some China-made phones carry a fake IMEI number which is the issue. Also, the problem was not just with IMEI numbers, it is the very presence of these so called Chinese mobiles, which are smuggled into India.
As per market information, the illegal trade of importing and selling Chinese mobiles in India alone accounts for about Rs70 billion and about 20% to 25% subscribers use these handsets.
The industry, scared of losing millions of subscribers, has taken some damage control measures. The Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) tied up with the Mobile Standard Alliance of India (MSAI) to set up 1,600 retail outlets across the country to implant IMEI numbers on these handsets for a fee of about Rs200 for each instrument.
However, there are more questions regarding the IMEI implant itself. With software like this in usage, it is now clear that an IMEI number can be implanted into any handset, so what is the assurance that such programmes will not be used for other, mostly stolen handsets, in the future as well? Secondly, there is a website to check genuine IMEI numbers (, but when I checked some IMEI numbers, it showed the numbers as genuine and issued somewhere in 2001-2002 for the primary market of Europe while the handsets were made in China and are in use in India.
This also brings out other, more serious questions about the origin of the IMEI number. Suppose, if there is one Chinese handset with an IMEI code but the IMEI code belongs to some other manufacturer and a defunct handset like the Nokia 5110, then how can the mobile service provider ban such handsets? Since the mechanism to check originality of IMEI numbers is restricted, in terms of infrastructure and data-sharing between operators, I wonder whether this (the ban on fake IMEI) will sustain.
According to media reports, Pankaj Mohindroo, president of the Indian Cellular Association (ICA) has asked the government to impose a ban on all devices with cloned IMEI numbers. But again, the question of identifying such devices remains a problem.
On the surface, banning handsets with fake IMEI numbers looks like a good idea, but it is not sufficient. The issue here is not of banning the use of these mobiles with bad or non-genuine IMEI numbers, but to curtail the highly prosperous illegal trade of mobile imports, which is going on since the past few years, through the porous borders along Pakistan and Nepal.
The illegal trade of the so-called Chinese handsets mostly takes place via Pakistan through the Rajasthan route, with a few consignments coming in via Nepal. Due to the turmoil in Nepal, the Pakistan route is supposed to be safer, as there are very few restrictions. Most of the time, the smugglers work hand-in-glove with the authorities in Pakistan.
The Indian authorities are using a short-cut way out in banning handsets with fake or no IMEI numbers. However in many countries, the IMEI number is used for preventing theft of the devices rather than keeping a tab on its use and user. Singapore has gone one step ahead. Mobile operators in Singapore are not required by the regulator to implement phone blocking or tracing systems, IMEI-based or any other. The regulator has expressed its doubts on the real effectiveness of this kind of system in the context of the mobile market in Singapore. Instead, mobile operators in Singapore are encouraged to take measures such as the immediate suspension of service and the replacement of SIM cards in case of loss or theft.
There is also a misunderstanding among some telecom regulators who think that an IMEI number implies that it is approved or complies with regulatory requirements, which is not the case. Following the introduction of European R&TTE Directive in April 2000, IMEI numbers are allocated by the British Approvals Board for Telecommunications (BABT) on behalf of the GSM Association.
Earlier DoT had issued tough directives to ban use of these handsets, but since then, the order has been postponed twice, following 'reservations' from mobile service providers and importers. So what will happen after 30th November? Well, we will keep our fingers crossed. What would be interesting to observe is the new subscriber addition or rather deletion from mobile operator numbers. If it can show significant changes (remember, there are 2.5 crore mobile subscribers who use devices without genuine IMEI numbers), then we only can say that the ban has been implemented successfully.
-Yogesh Sapkale [email protected]


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  • When management gurus failed to bell the CAT

    After two disastrous days of technical problems and pathetic coordination between the country's prestigious management schools, the Common Admission Test (CAT) 2009 finally had a smooth run on Monday, which is the third day of the staggered model that has been adopted. CAT, which determines admission to top business schools, mainly the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) usually sees applications from millions of students.

     This is the first time that the exams were being conducted online, but the process was marred with technical glitches and systems crashing, leading to cancellations at 49 labs in 24 centres across thirteen cities. The launch of the computerised CAT involved the delivery of exams by a unit of US-based technology-enabled testing and assessment services provider Prometric Inc into more than 360 testing labs at 104 individual locations.
    Prometric Testing Pvt Ltd (Prometric India), a subsidiary of Prometric, was awarded a multi-year, multi-million dollar contract by the IIMs to conduct the CAT for entry into top management schools in India.
    According to a PTI report, Ramesh Nava, Prometric’s vice president and general manager for Asia Pacific, Japan and Africa, had said, “Exhaustive plans were developed and put in place well in advance of the start of the testing window. Unfortunately viruses and malware that attacked the test delivery system were not detected by the anti-virus software at the testing centres."
    Echoing the same views, IIM Bangalore's director Pankaj Chandra had said, "In each centre there are five-six rooms where the CAT exam is being conducted. In a few rooms of some centres, there was a virus attack on computers. However, students in such centres will be given an alternative for the test—either today or on some other day, and they will be intimated."
    However, there is no independent confirmation of a virus either by any student, who took the test or by any media reports. Many experts are questioning the preparedness of Prometric and IIMs to conduct an exam of this scale, the technical infrastructure at the labs as well as the basic technical knowledge of the support staff.
    Vijay Mukhi, cyber expert and head of IT for the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), says, “Had the CAT exams been conducted using cloud technologies, none of the servers would have crashed and students would not have had to go through such hardships. I cannot understand why the IIMs shy away from using the latest state-of-the-art technologies used by the likes of Facebook, Yahoo, Google and Amazon.”
    This time, there are around 2.4 lakh aspirants taking the CAT 2009 exam online, spread over 10 days, for admission into India's top management schools. Many IT experts are also questioning the logic behind conducting the exam over 10 days, when the same can be done in a day. "Any computer professional will say that it is not difficult to build a system taking the load of some question papers for 2.4 lakh people, and the test should have been held on a single day," said an expert.
    According to media reports, students in centres across the country, particularly Chennai and Bengaluru and a number of Tier II cities, had reported that they could not log in using the given username. They also reported that computers were ‘crashing’ or ‘shutting down’ during the course of the exam, execution errors were being thrown up on the screen in the middle of the test and some questions were refusing to respond to a click and hence not being answered and so on.
    IIMs have put a disclaimer on their site warning that anybody who attempts to leak the question will face three years of jail or a fine of Rs2 lakh. However, given the high stakes on IIM admissions and the long period of 10 days to conduct the CAT, there are chances that a lot of business and tech-savvy players may be making a killing by revealing question papers stealthily, another expert said.
    Following the chaos during the first two days, many IIM aspirants—especially those who could not take the test—are feeling depressed. Prometric claimed that all affected students have been notified and the exam would be rescheduled within this year's testing period. However, there was some confusion among students for whom the test had been rescheduled.
    “We were not informed immediately. When there is a change in the schedule, we must be informed immediately. The change in the schedule adds to the pressure on us,” one student told PTI.
    One IT expert said that he was thinking about filing a class action suit against the IIMs. "Those who spent a lot of money to come to the centre and could not take the test should at least be compensated for the money spent. Not to mention the mental agony. It doesn’t matter a hoot if thousands are able to take the test. What about the uncertainty in the mind of a student who has a test scheduled for tomorrow? He doesn’t know whether it will be held or not," the expert said.
    Earlier, Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) tried an online entrance exam where the entire online infrastructure collapsed within a few minutes. IGNOU has asked Yahoo, the infrastructure provider for the exams, for a detailed report on the collapse.
    Why were the staff at NIIT, a partner of Prometric, not trained properly? Why did Prometric's personnel not reach the faulty testing centres on time? Why were there delays in registration?
    And when there were so many problems, why are the IIMs and Prometric blaming it on a virus? Or is it just a gimmick they are using to bluff the nation? Did both of them conduct the process and software testing so as to avoid glitches?
    The CAT fiasco has not only put a question mark over the inadequate preparedness by both IIMs and Prometric, but also on the country's IT prowess.

     -Yogesh Sapkale [email protected]
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