Indian Ban on Spurious Mobile Phones Found Inadequate

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The Indian government has asked mobile service providers not to allow calls on their networks from mobile phones without proper International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) numbers from Dec. 1, citing security reasons.

The order, however, has a glaring loophole as it does not provide for the blocking of calls from phones that use "clone" IMEIs, said Pankaj Mohindroo, national president of the Indian Cellular Association (ICA), a trade body that represents mobile handset makers and other mobile technology vendors.

The IMEI number is used by GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) networks to identify mobile devices. It is used by operators to block a stolen phone from using the network. Clone IMEIs are those that have been issued to registered handset vendors but have been copied on to phones of dubious origins, Mohindroo said.

The Sept. 3 order from India's Ministry of Communications & IT only refers to phones that have no IMEI numbers or have a sequence of 0s in place of the IMEI number, or "non-genuine" numbers that are not, in fact, IMEI numbers.

ICA has told the government that handsets that have clone IMEI numbers should also be banned in the interest of security, Mohindroo said.

The use of mobile phones without proper IMEI numbers is seen by the government as a threat to the country's security, as terrorists have been found to use mobile phones extensively. A large number of mobile phones that are sold in India are either spurious or unbranded, often sold at low prices without bills or warranty. A large number of consumers have bought these phones because of their low prices.

The government approved earlier this year a Genuine IMEI Implant (GII) proposal from service providers that programs genuine IMEI on mobile handsets. In a letter to service providers in April, the Ministry of Communications & IT recognized that some of the users of phones without proper IMEIs were "genuine innocent subscribers."

Using software would be a far more attractive option than to have to throw out the phones, said Sridhar T. Pai, CEO of Tonse Telecom, a firm that researches the telecom market in India. Pai added that he had not evaluated the software yet.

Banning of the use of phones without adequate IMEI numbers has been delayed because of lack of clarity from the government and also because of a slow response from service providers that had earlier been ordered to block calls from phones without proper IMEIs from July 1, according to analysts.

Operators have delayed implementing the ban because customers are their key assets and they will not do anything that will upset these customers, Pai said.

The Cellular Operators Association of India, an association of GSM mobile operators, was not available for comment, but an official said in private that its members would be able to meet the Dec. 1 deadline.

The Sept. 3 government order has expanded the ban to include mobile phones that have fake IMEIs, besides phones that have no IMEIs or a string of zeros in place of the IMEI.

It has ordered service providers to make provisions in their Equipment Identity Register (EIR) so that calls from phones from all three types of defaulting phones are rejected from Dec. 1 by the networks. Phones with fake IMEI numbers are to be detected by reference to the IMEI database of the GSM Association (GSMA).

The database of the GSMA will be able to detect fake IMEIs, but will not detect phones that have clone IMEIs, unless there is also a device management program that reveals the specification of the device, Mohindroo said. The EIR will then have to check whether the IMEI matches with the original device to which the number was issued, he added.

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