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Equity’s telecoms services plan faces new hurdle

  Airtel Kenya CEO Adil Youseffi (left) and Equity Bank CEO James Mwangi at the unveiling of the bank’s Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) strategy set for launch in July 2014. Photo/DIANA NGILA
Airtel Kenya CEO Adil Youseffi (left) and Equity Bank CEO James Mwangi at the unveiling of the bank’s Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) strategy set for launch in July 2014. Photo/DIANA NGILA  

Equity Bank’s plan to launch telecoms services are at risk following an objection from Safaricom over the piggy-back technology the bank intends to use.

In a letter to regulators, Safaricom chief executive Bob Collymore says Equity Bank should be prohibited from issuing thin SIM cards as they could expose subscribers to financial fraud and intercepted communication.

Kenya’s largest mobile company wants the Communications Authority to invite the GSM Association — which represents the interests of mobile operators worldwide — to review the risk posed by the technology to other mobile operators and subscribers.

“In the meantime, we call on the Communications Authority to prohibit its use in Kenya,” Mr Collymore says in the letter copied to the Central Bank of Kenya and Equity Bank through its subsidiary, Finserve.

The SIM in contention is paper-thin with an embedded chip. Users overlay it on their primary SIM card, regardless of network, and can then receive services from two mobile service providers simultaneously. Its use means Equity Bank does not have to persuade users to abandon their current network to access their services.

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Safaricom says its major concern is the security of its money transfer service, M-Pesa, which it says would be vulnerable to attacks.

“It would compromise the security of the M-Pesa system and consequently expose our 19 million M-Pesa subscribers to irreparable harm,” says Mr Collymore.

Contacted, Equity Bank chief executive James Mwangi dismissed Safaricom’s concerns as baseless.

In a phone interview, Mr Mwangi said SIM overlay technology does nothing more than provide dual SIM capability. The product, he said, is needed if Kenyan subscribers are to have true choice in telecom services.

“The opposition by Safaricom is speculative and would require technical proof. To the extent that the thin SIM has not been rolled out, they cannot allege (any risks exist) without proof,” he said.

Mr Mwangi said Finserve is on track to launch telecom services to the mass market this month despite the concerns raised by Safaricom and a court case by the Consumer Federation of Kenya (Cofek).

Equity’s banking agents, staff and the families of staff members will be issued with SIM overlay cards on 10 July.

Safaricom presents the latest round of opposition to Equity’s ambitions to make an entry into the telecommunication sector. Cofek has filed a case in the High Court, questioning the manner in which Equity Bank and two other firms were granted licences by the Communications Authority to become mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs). Cofek's concerns echo those raised by Telecommunication Service Providers of Kenya in May.

Finserve Africa Ltd was in April granted an MVNO licence alongside Mobile Pay Ltd and Zioncell. Equity Bank plans to use the Finserve licence to roll out mobile banking services independent of any operator. Customers will also be given data and voice services on the network. Anticipating reluctance from some of its 8.7 million customers to migrate to the new network, Finserve said that it would give customers the option of using an overlay SIM card.

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