Are the days numbered for Chinese handsets in India?

Friday, October 09, 2009

Sudha Nagaraj


In a country with over 400 million mobile phones in use where ten million new phones are being sold every month, a security scare over cheap and illegal handsets imported from China, threatens to silence over 25 million handsets by end November.

Most Chinese phones in circulation since a decade, lack the International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) number for GSM phones. Following reports from the Intelligence Bureau, the Department of Telecommunication has issued a directive to all mobile service operators to disconnect services to such phones.

It is the contention of Ministry of Home Affairs that such illegal devices can compromise national security as anti-social elements including terrorists opt to use such phones to communicate. Without the unique 15-digit number, that help sleuths track calls, retrieve call details from the handset and pinpoint the location and identity of the caller. No sooner a call is made, the SIM card is activated and the IMEI number is registered at the nearest GSM operator’s tower. All genuine IMEI numbers are recorded in a global database maintained by the Global Systems for Mobile Communications Association.

But Chinese, Taiwanese and other unbranded illegal handsets carry no number or bear an all-zero number. This is a Godsend for criminals and terrorist organisations.

Following the ban on illegal GSM handsets, there has been a clamour from certain sections of industry to impose a similar ban on CDMA handsets bought off the shelf (until two years ago, these handsets were sold by the service operators themselves) which lack the Mobile Equipment Identifier (MEID) number. Phones with cloned IMEI numbers (illegal phones with genuine IMEI numbers) are also likely to face a similar ban.

The industry is trying to brave it out by helping consumers install valid IMEI numbers. But the number of regulatory recommendations coming its way is overwhelming to say the least.

For instance, operators have been asked to stop use of Chinese equipment; there is pressure on operators to provide access to unlimited call details (from the present limit of 210 simultaneous calls) to security agencies; operators who get SIM cards from foreign vendors are being asked to obtain a certificate which guarantees that the security keys generated at the time of personalisation are secure and in the control of an Indian company with an Indian Chief Technical Officer.

It is apparent that the authorities see spyware and malware in Chinese rogue equipment that does not prescribe to standards, while business players are beginning to grumble about impediments to the industry’s growth. With 3G mobile services rollout in the offing, the vision of setting up low-cost networks is blurring. After all, high profile European vendors like Nokia Siemens, Alcatel and Ericsson do not come as cheap as the Chinese.


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