Sucheta Dalal :Mobile IMEI number game
Sucheta Dalal

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Mobile IMEI number game  

October 5, 2009


I remember a joke about an engineer and a politician debating on who is more productive and result oriented among them. The engineer claims since he has organised everything in a proper order across the world which was in a mess, he is more efficient. The politician simply says, but tell me who created that mess? Funny, isn't it? But this is what happens to every issue, problem in our country.
Take for example, the International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) issue. As per DoT and security agencies in India, mobiles with fake or no IMEI number, mostly imported from China and hence called Chinese mobiles, can pose security risks and should be banned. DoT had even issued tough directives to ban use of these handsets, but since then, the order has been postponed twice, following "reservations" from mobile service providers and importers.
Chinese handsets have a 15-digit IMEI number while genuine handsets, or rather those handsets sold with a bill and warranty from reputed brands, come embedded with a 16-digit IMEI that can be easily tracked by the operators.
Almost all the mobiles, which come in India, do have an IMEI number, but some China-made phones carry a fake IMEI number which is the issue. Also, the problem was not just of IMEI numbers, it is the import of these so called Chinese mobiles, which are smuggled into India.
As per market information, the illegal trade of importing and selling Chinese mobiles in India alone accounts for about Rs70 billion and about 20% to 25% subscribers use these handsets. The industry obviously scared of losing millions of subscribers has taken some damage control measures. The Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) has tied up with the Mobile Standard Alliance of India (MSAI) to set up 1,600 retail outlets across the country to implant IMEI numbers on these handsets for a fee of about Rs200 for each instrument. 
However, there are more questions regarding the IMEI implant itself. With software like this, it is now clear that an IMEI number can be implanted into any handset, so what is the assurance that such programmes will not used for other, mostly stolen handsets, in the future as well? Secondly, there is a website to check genuine IMEI numbers (, but when I checked some IMEI numbers, it showed the numbers as genuine and issued somewhere in 2001-2002 for the primary market of Europe while the handsets were made in China and are in use in India.
This brings out other, more serious questions about the origin of the IMEI number. Suppose, if there is one Chinese handset with an IMEI code but the IMEI code belongs to some other manufacturer and a defunct handset like the Nokia 5110, then how can the mobile service provider ban such handsets? Since the mechanism to check originality of IMEI numbers is restricted, in terms of infrastructure, data sharing between operators, I wonder whether this (the ban on fake IMEI) will sustain?
On the surface, banning handsets with fake IMEI looks like a good idea, but it is not sufficient. The issue here is not of banning the use of these mobiles with bad or non-genuine IMEI numbers, but to curtail the highly prosperous illegal trade of mobile imports, which is going on since the last few years, through the porous borders along Pakistan and Nepal.
The illegal trade of the so-called Chinese handsets mostly takes place via Pakistan through the Rajasthan route, with a few consignments coming in via Nepal. Due to the turmoil in Nepal, the Pakistan route is supposed to be safer, as there are very few restrictions. Most of the time, the smugglers work hand in glove with the authorities in Pakistan.
In this scenario, it would be interesting to see how DoT, COAI and MSAI would keep the deadline. Will there be another extension for the ban, in order to import some more illegal handsets into the country? Well, we don't know, but what we know for sure is that the market for Chinese handsets continues to glitter. -Yogesh Sapkale [email protected]

-- Sucheta Dalal