The state-owned telecom monopoly, Ethio Telecom, is fighting a telecom fraud committed by individuals using illegally imported VSATs and other telecom gadgets that bypass the company’s satellite network.

Thesedays it is quite common to receive internationals calls with local mobile numbers. Abdurahim Ahmed, Corporate Communication Officer at Ethio Telecom, told The Reporter that individuals illegally import VSATs, SIM Box, routers and other telecom equipment through various channels to commit the telecom fraud. Abdurahim said by using these telecom gadgets the persons establish their own telecom communication network that terminates Ethio Telecom’s international calls traffic.

The individuals operate smuggled VSAT and dozens of SIM cards in a SIM box to intercept the incoming international calls and relay them to local phones with local mobile numbers. “This is illegal. It is a telecom fraud. It is a crime,” Andurahim told The Reporter.

The individuals get payments for their services from foreign telecom companies which was supposed to be made to Ethio Telecom. The state-owned monopoly is reportedly losing millions of dollars due to the telecom fraud.

The telecom fraud is costing the telecom giant dearly. Ethio Telecom is the sole government enterprise bestowed by law to provide telecom services in the country.

In a bid to fight the illegal telecom operations, a national taskforce has been established. Members of the taskforce are drawn from Ethio Telecom, Information Network Security Agency (INSA), Federal Police, and National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS). Abdurahim told The Reporter that the taskforce is investigating the matter. “Various operations are being undertaken and fruitful results have been obtained. Individuals engaged in the illegal telecom operations have been arrested and brought to justice,” he said.

In a related development, Ethio Telecom is going to start disabling counterfeit and substandard mobile phone apparatus. In a press conference held on Thursday, officials of the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology and Ethio Telecom revealed that the telecom company has been automatically registering mobile phone apparatus that are in use in the country. The officials have set up a date for the public to activate mobile phones, tablet computers and other telecom gadgets that need SIM cards.

Abdurahim told reporters that mobile phones that are in use have already been registered. However, he said inactive devices should be activated until September 17. “To get their phones registered subscribers should not come to Ethio Telecom. All they have to do is insert their SIM cards and activate the phones. Then automatically the phones will be registered,” Abdurahim said.

Persons who have inactive mobile phones and tablet computers should activate them by September 17. Inactive devices will be disabled starting September 18.

From now onwards mobile subscribers should check the validity of phones before they buy them. “Subscribers should check the devices’ International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) number by dialling *#06#. They can check with Ethio Telecom if their phone is a standard device registered by the company by dialling *868#,” Abdurahim said.

According to Abdurahim, there are 58 million mobile subscribers adding that Ethio Telecom identified 2.7 million counterfeit mobile apparatus. He said that substandard and counterfeit devices will be disabled after a year. “Subscribers will be notified by Ethio Telecom about the status of their phones. If they are substandard and counterfeit customers will be advised to replace their phones within a year. Otherwise the devices will be disabled after a year.”

Balcha Reba, Regulatory Director at the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology, explained the need for the mobile phone apparatus registration. Balcha said that substandard counterfeit devices are posing threat to the public health by emitting excess energy, inflicting harm on the mobile network, and squandering the mobile market of local assemblers.

“Substandard and cloned devices congest the mobile network. Contraband devices are overwhelming the market discouraging local mobile phone producers. The local assemblers are losing their market to cloned cheap contraband phones and we should protect these investments,” Balcha said.

Balcha said that the mobile apparatus registration would also curb mobile theft. “Once the mobile apparatus is registered the customer who lost his phone can report to Ethio Telecom and disable the apparatus.”

Abdurahim said to encourage local mobile phone assemblers Ethio Telecom buys 60 percent of their products and supply it to local market with highly subsidized rates. “We buy locally assembled phones for 640 birr and sell it for only 240 birr to the public.”

Ayalneh Lemma, Legal Services Head with the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology, on his part said mobile phone registration is a long overdue task. “It is an international practice implemented in neighboring Kenya, even in the US and European countries. It tackles contraband, theft and unfair business practices.”

Balcha told The Reporter that the registration operation is one way of tackling the telecom fraud. The illegal telecom service providers that use VSATs, SIM Box and Routers to intercept incoming calls now cannot get their SIM Box registered as SIM box possession is illegal. “Once the registration is completed their SIM boxes will be disabled. They cannot register their SIM box.”

Ethio Telecom is now the second largest telecom operator in Africa next to MTN, the South African telecom giant.


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