Tanzania has joined a group of African countries using mobile phone SIM card registrations to both track down criminals using mobile phones to commit crimes and to reduce handset theft.
Like many other Southern African Development Community countries, and east Africa and west Africa communities, Tanzania hopes the process, which will take six months to complete, will give impetus to fighting crimes committed using mobile phones. The theory is that if a call is linked to a crime, the police can find out who bought the SIM card and make an immediate arrest.
The Botswana Telecommunication Authority (BTA) started the registration last year, while the Nigerian Communication Commission and the Communication Commission of Kenya are also introducing regulations that give powers to the police to intercept calls anytime.
The Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication Related Information Act (RICA) came into force in South Africa this month, and anyone who buys an SIM card without registering risks being arrested by police.
The African region is experiencing phenomenal growth in the use of mobile phones compared to other regions of the world, so more phones are being stolen every day and criminals are also using phones to commit crimes.
In Nigeria and Somalia, for example, criminals are using mobile phones in ship hijackings, the abductions of foreign oil workers and to demand ransoms.
Many African governments believe that the registration of SIM cards will reduce such criminal activities and handset theft, and make it easy for authorities to crack down on criminals.
Telecom operators are already claiming that the move would work against the universal access principle and add to the cost of SIM cards, as vendors would have to invest in data-capturing machines.
Amos Ferranti, communications manager for the southern African mobile communication agency, said SIM card registration will have a number of challenges as many service providers are not prepared.
"Several operators are definitely not prepared for [this] strenuous exercise, as many subscribers subscribe with two or more different networks," Ferranti said.
Many operators in Africa claim that attempts to register in-bound roamers will have a negative impact on foreign currency inflows, owing to muted use of roaming facilities occasioned by the introduction of SIM card registration regulations, as tourists will be shying away from such registration.
Registration of SIM cards will also make it difficult for pan-Africa mobile service provider Zain to roll out and implement the borderless One Network service, according to Ferranti.
The One Network service, which is already operational in more than 10 countries in Africa and the Middle East, allows subscribers to call any country where the service is available at local rates with no roaming charges. Zain subscribers will not be able to register their SIM cards in all the countries where the service is available in order to roam.
Phone users who fail to register their cards at the end of the exercise will have their phones disconnected and will have to reapply for another line, which will be registered. The regulation also makes it an offense for service providers to sell an SIM card without recording the buyer's name, address, cell-phone number and other personal details.