By ChinaTechNews.com Editorial Team
Mobile phone users in India are eyeing April 15, 2009, the day when as many as 25 million of their China-made mobile phones will die, with apprehension and concern.
Mobile phone manufacturers in China have sold up to 25 million of their grey market phones in India, and those phones often lack international mobile equipment numbers. An IMEI is a unique 15-digit code that identifies the handset. Each time a call is made, the telecommunications company uses the IMEI to identify the caller via a universal registry of phones. If a phone lacks an IMEI, the telecommunications company can still route the number to the destination, but it does not know which phone is making the call. And herein lies the problem: the Department of Telecommunications in India's Ministry of Communications and I.T. worries that these anonymous phones can be used by terrorists.
In a letter dated October 6, 2008, with memo number 20-40/2006-BS-III signed by B.L. Panwar and addressed to all mobile access providers in India, the Department of Telecommunications stated that in the interest of national security, all Indian telecom operators should focus on implementing checks of IMEI within two months. This time period has since been extended a few times, and now April 15 is the deadline. Wireless service providers in India are expected to disconnect mobile phones that lack IMEI on April 15.
While Indian mobile phone users can verify their own IMEI numbers by pressing *#06# on their handsets, the worry is what will happen if they are among the unlucky consumers who purchased a Chinese-made phone lacking an IMEI. The DoT estimates the 25 million phones lacking IMEI in India account for about 10% of the total phones used in the country. Telecom firms like Vodafone and Airtel could take a financial hit if all of a sudden these phones go out of service. Unfortunately, these phones are often used by low-income users, so to get those users back, the telecom companies might need to subsidize new phone purchases.
ChinaTechNews.com has run a few articles on the IMEI issues over the past year, and comments posted on the website showcase worries among consumers. In fact, many more comments on the website from Indians have been deleted than posted because in the rush to gain credible information, many Indian commenters have posted their personal details and phone numbers on the website in a bid to gain as much support as possible. Indian users are obviously worried.
On June 12, 2008, Henry posted this comment on ChinaTechNews.com in support of government intervention: "I think it needs the government to participant into that market by controlling the supply of the IMEI, so, people can track if their mobile phone is brand new and/or come from the quality factory. the way of branding the mobile phone or teaching the end-user to select the good phone are not worked. It's not just the bad quality factory, but also the refurbish mobile phone".
And on January 10, 2009, Dayanand writes, "I have Zhong Da T300 Dual SIM Card Phone With Dual TV & Bluetooth Function. But this model doesn't have IMEI number please help me to get IMEI or where from i can update it to my mobile Please help as early as possible".
So what are Chinese mobile phone manufacturers doing to show compliance? At the end of 2008, China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology announced that the GSM Association approved China's Telecommunication Terminal Testing & Approval Forum to issue international mobile equipment identity numbers to Chinese TD-SCDMA and GSM mobile phones and more than 200 types of mobile phones received the IMEI numbers. Previous to this, the GSM Association only authorized the British Approvals Board of Telecommunications and North America's PCS Type Certification Review Board to issue IMEI numbers to handset manufacturers.
While over-sensitive privacy advocates might balk at this additional layer of consumer protection, businesses and consumers should be pleased that Chinese-made mobile phones are increasing their conformity with global standards. But with all of that in mind, where was the sense of responsibility from the telecom operators in the first place? Why did it take an edict from the Indian government to make both Chinese manufacturers and Indian telecom operators align their business interests in a more responsible pattern? Left to their own devices, the companies would have continued to pursue quick money to the detriment of safety in the future.