An estimated 20 million phones went dead on December 1 by government fiat: Mobile providers were ordered to stop service to cell phones which did not have the unique International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) number.
Many entry level phones have been available in India -- mostly sourced from China -- without this 15 digit number that uniquely identifies the handset and helps track it. The cheapest sets in the market, mostly unbranded, and costing around a thousand rupees did not have a unique number: they mostly shared a number across thousands of handsets from one maker.
Government woke up to the need to track phones after the 26/11 terrorist attacks in Mumbai and mandated that only phones with the IMEI could be served by telecom providers. The Cellular Operators Association of India ( www.coai.in ) and thr Mobile Standards Alliance of India (www.msai.in) set up over 1500 centres in India where subscribers could get an IMEI number retroactively allocated by paying Rs 199.
But indications are that only a tiny fraction of subscribers availed of there amnesty: so it has been one big switch off on December 1. Where does this leave millions who bought a phone legally without knowing that it lacked ann important identifier? We trust government will extend the window during which phone owners could obtain an IMEI number for their sets.
Those who bought these phones, overwhelmingly belong to the most resource -challenged sections of society: those who saved for months to buy their first phone. Why punish them because government woke up,late to the very existence of this number? We have a second more importan take: If the hope is that with all phones and their owners in India traceable, this will somehow neutralise terrorists who use them for their nefarious deeds -- that is wishful thinking. Baddies use phones ( not always their own) and throw them away after use.
And as the interrogation of a few suspects post 26/11, has revealed, such technology is always a shifting goalpost: terrorists have moved on to making Internet phone calls with services like Skype. So let's not disenfranchise 20 million Indians on the specious logic that this will somehow make us more terrorism proof.
The baddies are already working their way around this minor difficulty -- only the good and innocent are hassled.
PS: on GSM numbers you can get your IMEI number in India by dialing *#06#
Dec 2 2009