Thousands blocked in fake mobile phones switch off

Elijah Macharia and Esther Mwangi (left) buy a phone from Yvonne Njenga  at Fast Mobile phone shop in Nairobi Monday. Thousands of phones were blocked from accessing services in a drive to lock out counterfeit handsets.  DIANA NGILA
Elijah Macharia and Esther Mwangi (left) buy a phone from Yvonne Njenga at Fast Mobile phone shop in Nairobi Monday. Thousands of phones were blocked from accessing services in a drive to lock out counterfeit handsets. DIANA NGILA 

The switching off of counterfeit mobile phones started on a messy note Monday after some operators said that the job could not be done in a day, even as their rivals said the mission had been successfully completed.

Some telecoms companies said it would take up to a week to disconnect all counterfeits, giving consumers an additional seven days from the September 30 deadline.

This latest revelation was contrary to the impression created by key industry players that cutting off counterfeits from the system would be done at once after expiry of the deadline.

Phone retailers in major towns Monday reported brisk business as consumers rushed to replace dead handsets or moved to get genuine phones before being switched off.

The market leader, Safaricom, said it had switched off all the 680,000 fake handsets in its network by 11am.

The operator said it was too early to assess the financial implications of the move but confirmed that initial analysis indicated that areas around Nairobi, Rift Valley, Central and Eastern were hardest hit.

Together, these areas accounted for more than 60 per cent of the targeted counterfeit phones, Safaricom said in a statement.

On Monday, mobile phone retailers emerged as the biggest beneficiaries of the phone blockage.

In Kisumu, independent phone dealers and mobile operator-owned shops were swamped by large numbers of customers seeking to buy genuine handsets.

“This is the first time we are dealing with such a high number of clients seeking to buy phones in a single day,” said James Otieno, a dealer.

John Owino, a customer who visited the Mega Plaza shop in Kisumu to purchase a new handset, said he was shocked on discovering that his phone had been switched off in the night.

‘‘I was expecting a call for a job interview today but now I am out of reach,” Mr Owino said.

A spot-check by Business Daily at various shops in Nairobi found that most had increased activity from customers visiting to acquire new handsets or to register their SIM cards – which are also slated for disconnection later this year.

Customer care representatives at the Kimathi Street Safaricom customer care shop said that some customers had gone into the shop with counterfeit phones.

It was however difficult to find people whose phones had been switched off, a fact that Safaricom attributed to the small number of affected customers compared to the total number of subscribers.

“The 800,000 affected customers are only a tiny fraction of the more than 20 million phones in use and spread across the country,” said Nzioka Waita, the director of corporate affairs at Safaricom.

Other industry players such as Telkom Kenya and yuMobile said they needed a few more days to fully comply with the Communications Commission of Kenya (CCK) directive.

Telkom Kenya CEO Mickael Ghossein said that by Monday, his firm had switched off about half of the 140,000 counterfeit phones on its network.

“The process is gradual and has to be done carefully to ensure that we do not affect customers with genuine phones,” said Mr Ghossein. “We expect the process to be complete by the end of the week after which any new cases will be dealt with on an individual basis.”

Madhur Taneja, the yuMobile CEO, said that the switch off “is a process but we expect to be done with our list of 45,000 phones by the end of the day (Monday).”

Mr Taneja explained that CCK had sent each operator a “global” list of 588,000 counterfeit phones at the weekend, from which they had to pick and block.

This was over and above the phones that were on each operator’s list and was meant to prevent users from swapping SIM cards from one operator to the next and “reactivating” phones that had been switched off by a rival operator.

Attempts to get comments from Airtel Kenya on the progress of switching off of the more than 100,000 phones on its list did not bear fruit by the time this report was filed.

Francis Wangusi, the CCK director-general said that all operators had committed to switching off counterfeit phones.

“All four operators have to comply with the directive since anything to the contrary would have implications on their licenses,” said Mr Wangusi.

Bob Collymore, the Safaricom chief executive said success of the operation lay in full compliance by all operators.

“For this exercise to be successful, all operators have to play their part and diligently block the counterfeits based on lists they receive from the other networks,” said Mr Collymore.

“We recognise that blocking handsets alone is not a long term solution. We need support from the CCK and related government agencies to block entry and sale of the counterfeit devices and to step up prosecution of those who engage in their illegal importation and sale.”

Additional reporting by Everline Okewo