The CCK and Mitigating Mobile Phone Theft

When most people are “relieved” of their phones, unconsciously or under duress, at least one of three things generally happen following: (1) you count your losses, sigh and dust off an old phone; (2) you call your provider and block your phone with a vengeance, or (3) outwit, outcall and outlast with Ujanja. Option 1 is easy. Option 3 is just plain dubious. Option 2 takers might find respite in the news that the Communications Commission of Kenya (CCK) is threatening to flex its regulatory muscle against sellers of second-hand cell phone handsets.

Why the war on resellers? Because in all likelihood, the phones are (a) stolen, and/or (b) reprogrammed to alter their identity and unblock them, if the service provider had imposed a network block to make it unusable. Both are criminal offenses as stipulated in the Kenya Communications (Amendment) Bill 2008.

But if the ultimate goal of the government is to significantly reduce the incidences of mobile phone robbery, is going after resellers the best approach? This front alone will probably not produce appreciable results. Enforcement of the relevant KC(A) 2008 clauses is the challenging part. Most resellers are not at established shops, for obvious reasons; they’re mobile. They ply their trade of robbing and hawking on the inner city streets and at matatu termini where there’s a high volume of human traffic. Apprehending the perpetrators is a logistical nightmare.

The reason there’s a market for these used phones is because (1) the phones on offer are “better” phones, and (2) the said phones new, are out of reach of many. Sure, there are sub-Sh.2,000 phones on the market, but many don’t have desirable features beyond standard texting and calling functionality, such as MMS, in-built camera and music player, 3G-capability, bluetooth etc. If a higher end phone can be had for cents on the shilling on the street, not many uncanny folks would pass by the offer. The law of supply and demand at work.

So reduce the cost of mid-range and some higher-end phones, and the need to obtain these from a hack at the street corner would subside. Easier said than done, right? This cannot be mandated by government. Reasonable strategic choices would need to be made by mobile phone service providers – and fostered by the CCK – in as far as partnering with equipment manufacturers to make subsidies for their phone offerings in exchange for locking the phones to the carrier.

Yes, there’s the concern that some will deliberately buy the phones on the cheap and then go ahead and unlock it for use on rival networks, a win-lose situation. But that fact hasn’t deterred service providers in developed markets, where the practice is commonplace, to continue with such subsidies. In fact it has allowed better cell phones to be availed to more subscribers, leading to an increase in overall mobile penetration. Also, most people just want their phones to work; dabbling with the gizmos is for the tech at heart.

The tailwind to this effect is that the greater the proliferation of affordable feature-packed cell phones, the smaller the market for similar used phones will be. The expected outcome would be the decline in mobile phone robbery.

Now that the country is especially keen on increasing mobile phone penetration and upbeat on offering value added services with the arrival of terrestrial fiber optic, why not kill two birds with one stone – reduce the cost of owning a mobile phone, putting better phones into the hands of more people, leading to the decline in mobile phone theft?