June 22, 2009

India crack down on telcos that allow mobile handsets without IMEI number

India has banned imports of mobile phones which do not have a unique international identification code.

Last year, Indian intelligence agencies had said phones without the code were being used by terrorist groups in attacks in the country.

Huge impact on grey market phones.

Our Bureau

New Delhi, June 17 In a move that could signal the end of grey market mobile phones, the Government on Wednesday banned import of all handsets without the International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) number.

IMEI is a unique 15-digit code that identifies a mobile. It prevents the use of stolen handsets for making calls and allows security agencies to track down a specific user. However, a majority of handsets sold in the grey market do not come with the IMEI, which has is of concern for security agencies.

The Government move to ban handsets without the code will hit a number of Chinese and Taiwanese manufacturers that were flooding cheap handsets in the grey market. The move will have no impact on the 25 million cellular users who already have bought a handset without IMEI. The ban is applicable only on new handsets being imported into the country.

The Director-General of Foreign Trade issued the notification on Wednesday imposing the ban with immediate effect.

Welcoming the decision, Mr Pankaj Mohindroo, President, Indian Cellular Association, said, “This is a step in the right direction to throttle handset grey market. However, much more needs to be done to tackle this menace. We are working with the Government in this regard.”

To protect consumers who have already bought handsets without the IMEI number, the Cellular Operators Association of India has tied up with Mobile Standard Alliance of India to set up 1,600 retail outlets across the country to provide the IMEI number on handsets without one. It is estimated that there are 25 million subscribers across the country using handsets without the IMEI number. Concerned over the national security, the Department of Telecom had earlier asked operators to disconnect services to handsets that do not have the IMEI number by April 15. However, the COAI, representing the GSM industry, has developed a software that will provide the unique number to instruments that do not have it.

The solution is being implemented with the approval of the DoT and the security agencies. Subscribers who do not avail themselves of this facility will be disconnected by the operators after June 30.

DoT asks telcos for IMEI list

22 Jun 2009, 0031 hrs IST, Joji Thomas Philip,
ET Bureau

NEW DELHI: After banning the import of all mobile handsets that do not have a unique international identification code, the government has now
decided to crack down on telcos who still allow their subscribers to use such handsets on their networks.

The Department of Telecom (DoT) has now asked all operators to furnish details as to how many of their customers, who use cheap Chinese handsets without the International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) number (a 15-digit code which appears on the operator’s network whenever a call is made), have availed of the software update which will enable these phones to get a unique number.

In May 2009, following a government directive to ban all handsets that do not have an IMEI number on account of security issues, all telcos jointly had said they would get their subscribers who used such devices to get a software update, which would provide these phones with an unique identity, as required by the law. Telcos also said that they had set up over 1,600 centres across the country to enable their customers to get this software installed for a fee of Rs 180.

Telcos had also argued that since ‘most of these handsets are owned by the masses, it would be unfair and unjust to disconnect such customers as they have bought these handsets unknowingly’, while adding that software update would address the security concerns raised by intelligence agencies and the Home Ministry.

The software was jointly developed by GSM operators’ body Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) and Mobile Standards Alliance of India.

It is estimated that close to 25 million of the 400 million plus mobile users in the country use cheap Chinese handsets without IMEI numbers. This unique code reflects on the operator’s network whenever a call is made or received from any handset and therefore allows lawful interception of all calls.

Mobile operators store these numbers in Equipment Identity Register (EIR) — so if a handset is stolen, and its owner can provide the IMEI number to his operator to ensure that all calls from this device is barred.

In October 2008, the DoT asked telcos to install EIR so that calls without IMEI or with IMEI consisting of all zeroes are not processed. This followed investigations by security agencies looking into the bomb blasts in several Indian cities this year which revealed that mobile phones used by terrorists did not bear valid IMEI numbers.