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 (www.numberingplans.com), 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.