Q & A: Over 2 million SIM cards registered — says Rura boss

Just over a month after the process of registering Sim cards for mobile phone subscribers kicked off, over two million subscribers have registered, ahead of the six-months deadline. The New Times’ Frank Kanyesigye last week caught up with François Régis Gatarayiha, the Director General of Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Agency (Rura). Besides the registration exercise, the interview touched transport regulation and the quest to migrate from analogue to digital transmission among other issues. Below are the exerpts.The New Times (TNT): What is the latest update on the registration of Sim Cards one month after the process began?
François Régis Gatarayiha during the interview. The New Times/Timothy  Kisambira.
François Régis Gatarayiha during the interview. The New Times/Timothy Kisambira.

Just over a month after the process of registering Sim cards for mobile phone subscribers kicked off, over two million subscribers have registered, ahead of the six-months deadline. The New Times’ Frank Kanyesigye last week caught up with François Régis Gatarayiha, the Director General of Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Agency (Rura). Besides the registration exercise, the interview touched transport regulation and the quest to migrate from analogue to digital transmission among other issues. Below are the exerpts.

The New Times (TNT): What is the latest update on the registration of Sim Cards one month after the process began?

Regis Gatarayiha (RG):
As you may be aware, the Sim Card registration programme started on 4th February; so far we have seen good response from the general public.  The numbers we received on Monday showed that over 2 million subscribers all combined (from different service providers) out of the 5.4 million have complied. The response is quite good, if you can achieve 34 percent within one month of a six-month exercise, we think it is very good progress.

Because of the combination of the registration process and the existing national identification database, the process has been very easy and smooth.

People find it very easy to register when they buy new Sim cards and the same applies to existing ones, because the operators are ready and have prepared service centres where people can register from everywhere in the country.

TNT: Why have you suddenly come up with the initiative of  registering subscribers 15 years after the first operator opened shop in Rwanda?

The main reason was security concerns that were coming with the adoption of mobile communication, especially in terms of financial transactions that have to be associated with the identification of the mobile user.

We have seen some crimes committed using mobile phones and it was important to come up with the policy due to the adoption of many applications that use a mobile phone.

There is also a process called ‘know your customer’—knowing the customers’ physical addresses so that whenever we identify a lack of take-up of subscribers in certain area, the operators can investigate why, if its a coverage problem and identify the matter.

Today the operators don’t know where their subscribers are, how many subscribers and what should be done to increase the subscription base.

But a gain it’s not a process that has just started in Rwanda, it has been done in other countries and even in East Africa. Rwanda and Burundi were the last ones to adopt the policy.

TNT: Some people have said it is government’s secretive move to intercept people’s conversations…

It’s not true. It has nothing to do with intercepting people’s conversation.

Tapping of conversations is illegal and it can only be allowed when they do something called ‘lawful interception’ and it’s done according to legal framework that is very clear.

It is done to people who are being followed by law enforcement agencies but that must be mandated by a warrant signed by the prosecutor general.

It’s not possible to tap communications of five million people; it’s a perception that has no basis.

TNT: If the deadline expires before all subscribers have registered their Sim Cards, do you plan to extend the deadline?

Not really, that is why we put a period of six months. And if all goes well, we are going to see a good response in early months so that we can judge by the fourth month to see if the progress has been good.

But we are not intending to extend it, because Sim Card registration was one of the targets of the East African Communication Organisation (EACO) that was supposed to be completed by the end of 2012.

We have already missed the deadline, we cannot keep postponing. Now that we have a system that is very efficient and we have tried to explain the rationale, it shouldn’t be a problem any further.

The numbers that will not have been registered by July 31st will be disconnected.

TNT: Rwanda’s own set target for the migration from analogue to digital transmission was missed. What is the reason for the delays?

There were two target dates; one is the global deadline for ITU set for June 2015 for all countries to have migrated from analogue to digital broadcasting but in the region (EAC) we had given ourselves a deadline of December 2012.

This deadline we miss, but we are looking forward to migrate to digital this year, the delay was mainly due to the unavailability of Set Top Boxes (STBs) the – converters – otherwise the network is there, it has been in operation since 2011, testing has been done, the coverage is good and is about 95 per cent of the country.

We are now looking at ways of getting partners for Orinfor (national broadcaster) while they are also doing some renovations of their buildings and studios to make sure that partners can also import the STBs in time for full migration. Actually this month, we are looking at starting the ‘dual elimination period’ which we are going to attach a six month deadline as well, after that period we are going to switch off the analogue.

We are going to have dual elimination period not exceeding six months so that people can have the urgency to get STBs or digital TV sets.

Orinfor has already called for investors but because maybe the specifications were not clear, we have not seen a response, but since we have now issued the specifications on the standards needed to be adhered to when importing the STBs, we have started seeing investors interested.

The investors have started coming and we are hopeful this thing is going to be done in a shortest period of time.

The investors are mainly usual business people who are selling electronics in town and have been coming to Rura asking about the STBs specifications.

However there is no tendering process, we are not going to tender, they are going to import them and sell them like any other electronics.

The exact date of switching off analogue transmission can only be known once we have started the dual elimination period but we want to make sure that at least there are some available STBs before we start broadcasting in both analogue and digital.

Definitely, I believe we are going to fully switch to digital broadcasting before the end of this year, although I can’t tell the exact date.

TNT: Rwandans have waited for long to see more private television stations…is this an opportunity to see more operators?

Well private TV stations are going to be called broadcasters, first of all we have two players in this digital value chain, one is the signal distributor—the one who owns a network that carries signals, one is going to be offered to Orinfor and the second one is going to be issued to the private operators, they are in discussions to enter into a joint venture which will be assigned to the second private signal distributor license.

We believe the spectrum scarcity that we have, we shall split it in two and they will have equal spectrum to be able to carry their signals on their network.

Already Orinfor has a network and those frequencies have already been assigned to them, the regulatory board has already signed the license the one to be issued to Orinfor and for the private operators.

Once they have completed their joint venture, we want them to work together.

The joint venture is between Star Times with other TV stations like Tele10 and Contact TV, there are also other operators who are interested to be in the same category of owning signal distribution license.

Here there will be so many broadcasters with studios to produce their own content and feed in one of the signal distributors. The advantage of digital migration is that you can carry many signals on one network.

The opening up of TV stations will depend on how ready they are, we have about eight who have been licensed to have a studio, and I cannot disclose them before they are licensed by the Media High Council.

But there is Tele10 which is already on air and Contact TV which is coming very soon, others are still waiting to be licensed and even get a signal distributor where they can feed their content.

TNT: Rwandans are complaining of pay TV stations like Star Times of poor signal, how do you regulate such operators?

Well Star Times had issues and part of the issues is the spectrum which was not enough for them to rollout a complete network.

We told them not start rolling out a network that looks like a signal distributor’s license when they do not have a license. We did not allocate them enough spectrum.

The quality of service in the area that is covered by the Star Times is not appealing, they compressed a lot of channels in a small spectrum, so we have been in contact with them and they have understood, we hope this is going to be resolved once they agree on the joint venture of private signal distributor and we give them enough spectrum with a big network that can accommodate many channels.

They asked for enough spectrum but they could not get it because they are not licensed signal distributors. Star Times is a pay TV not a signal distributor.

TNT: Some time last year, you said you would switch fake mobile phones off the network…

This initiative, we looked at its impact in other countries, where it has been implemented.

We have seen the impact switching off these phones has had in these countries and we opted for banning counterfeit mobile phone handsets from entering the country instead of switching the existing ones off their telecommunication networks.

We thought that, instead of switching off the existing ones, we should rather stop the new ones from entering the country and that process is being done through the ‘type approval’ and no more counterfeit phones are coming in the country.

Switching them off doesn’t usually last long because someone bought it because they could only afford that one, so we gave them alternative of banning the new ones from entering Rwanda.

For stance in other countries, where counterfeit handsets have been disconnected in millions, we realized that the idea wasn’t sustainable for Rwanda and we looked for other ways where someone has to change their handsets willingly, but we stop the new ones coming.

TNT: Tell us about the new road transportation licensing system?

This is a web-based application which can be accessed through any web browser and people will no longer be required to fill the lengthy forms before they are given a license.

This will also allow us to have a centralised database because we plan to have satellite offices; we have started with one in Southern Province and intend to have others in all provinces across the country, so that people in rural areas can access our licenses without coming to Kigali.

This scheme is going to link all sites to our centralised system, it’s going to be online and people will no longer go through a lot of paperwork which sometimes is even difficult to keep track of all the records.

The rationale is to identify all the stakeholders in the transport sector to keep all the data, improve the quality of services and improve the rate of the speed at which we operate in terms of issuing licenses to transport operators.

Generally it is in line of improving the services delivered by Rura.

TNT: Before was there any challenge regarding regulating the  transport system in the country?

Yeah, there was a big challenge. For example it was difficult to know the number of taxis plying a certain route. There was no way of attaching the buses to the demand on a certain route  to influence the decision of the private operators to let them know the demand of say the Kimironko route so that they can invest in that route and attach them on their license.

There was no retrieval for planning purposes and effective this month (March) we are no longer going to issue individual authorisation, so any transport operator will be given a license with a new sticker because the computerised system is going to print a sticker that looks like that of insurance companies, and to get this they will have to be in a cooperative or in a company.

This system will allow us ascertain how many vehicles are operated by which cooperatives or the ones under companies, which was difficult to determine previously.

TNT: The transport sector has remained problematic generally with scores of passengers usually seen on different bus-stops especially during peak hours…

The transport sector has come a long way, but we still have a long journey to go.

We have started seeing investors becoming more serious within this sector but for them to get the projected return on investment, we have to organise it in a way that those companies and cooperatives are not hampered by informal operators.

That is why we have stopped licensing individuals. But there is one problem we have identified that needs to be addressed; the cost of transportation which is dictated by unstable oil prices.

We have started discussing with the Ministry of Finance and Rwanda Revenue Authority on how they can improve tax incentives for investors in this area.

There are a number of issues like roads that need to be improved but all these issued have been addressed in the new transportation policy that was approved by cabinet last year and we are in the process of implementing it.

But the main challenge is that some of these issues need budget like construction of roads, bus stages and routes that are dedicated to buses like any other countries, this needs huge investments.

What we are trying to do is to immediately implement those that do not require big budget but its along-term roadmap to fully implement the policy.

There is also this issue of lack of transport means during peak hours by the public, this is not due to scarcity of buses, the problem is the way transporters operate, this going to be resolved through the implementation of the policy where we will assign dedicated companies or cooperatives to certain routes which is already being implemented.

TNT: Can you tell us the impact of EACO since its launch in Rwanda last year?

The East Africa Communication Organisation (EACO) is temporarily housed at Rura but the plan is to have permanent offices built for regional body.

We have secured a plot where we will build the headquarters of Rura, which also meets the requirements for a multisector regulator, and on the same plot we shall have the EACO headquarters.

For the mean time, the EACO offices are small and they have a small team until they get a permanent facility.

On the impact side, it’s still too early to see the benefits and challenges. However we have started seeing the benefits. For example the employees recruited by EACO, out of eight, four are Rwandans and that is employment created, we have also seen many task force EACO meetings within in the East African region being held in Rwanda, which improves the participation of Rwandans to address the issues in the communication sector. 

TNT: Anything you may want to add?

The public needs to know two things; regarding the Sim Card registration; we really encourage the public to register so that they don’t run into trouble of having to disconnect numbers at the end of the six months period. 

Secondly the transportation system that is being changed its not because we want to change, it’s in line with the implementation of the policy and a lot of changes are going to take place. We therefore appeal to the public to help us monitor the situation and if anything goes wrong, they should tell us to adjust accordingly.

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