Imagine, if you can, a life without cell phone contracts. A life where all phones are unlocked. Cell phone companies continually must struggle to gain your business and you have the power to simply purchase a new SIM card for a quarter to have a new number.
This is the reality of phone service in much of the world outside the US.
In countries like the West African nation of Ghana, acquiring a new number used to be as easy as simply going to the mall or your local market and purchasing an MTN, Vodaphone, Airtel and/or a Tigo SIM card — you can have one of each if you would like — and popping it in your phone and purchasing some credit (minutes) to make calls.
After purchasing credit, your SIM card would give you a deadline of the number of days you would have to use the credit. Shortly afterwards, if you didn’t purchase more credit, your card would be deactivated. However, if you continued to add credit to your account, you could hypothetically use the card forever without the phone companies knowing even your name and address.
Though the convenience and ease of this system is immediately apparent, the lack of any sort of identification linked to numbers could lead to many problems.
In a system where numbers aren’t identified, people can do whatever they want with their number without any fear of the repercussions for their actions.
Because of this issue, in May 2010, the National Communications Authority of Ghana decided to require all Ghanaian SIM cards to be registered by June 30, 2011. Thus far, 92 percent of SIM cards have been registered.
In order to register, you must bring either your passport, National Health Insurance Identity Card, Driver’s License, National Identification Card or Voter’s Identity Card to a cell phone company’s branch to have it registered for free or have a local registering agent register it for you for a small fee. However, if you are a foreigner you must bring your passport.
Though I am in favor of the new accountability this system will bring to Ghana, in attempting to register my own MTN chip for the past week, I have also been able to see some of the system’s flaws.
One key problem is that one cannot simply register their card online. This change would allow the registering process to occur a lot faster and be easier for individuals who work or can’t make it to an office or afford to register their SIM card on the street.
Also, the new system requires that you provide a stranger with your personal information. This is a huge privacy issue that could lead to a lot of problems for Ghanaians. Just yesterday, as I was registering my chip at the MTN branch in Tema, I saw the other three people in line with me copying down my full name so they could add me on Facebook.
Though the end result was my card being registered and able to be used, along the way there was a lot of room for improvement.