PORT MORESBY – Of late, NICTA, Papua New Guinea’s National Information & Communications Technology Authority, amplified its calls for phone owners to register their SIM cards or face de-activation.
One particular aspect of this that baffled me was how NICTA would deal with rural phone users.
Thanks largely to Digicel’s widespread installation of towers many folk in the rural areas of PNGare now able to communicate with relatives and friends living in other parts of the country.
This has significantly changed the lives of many Papua New Guineans. It has happened slowly but has been profound in its consequences.
For most communities the road to connectivity started out as a faint signal only reachable on the highest mountains or from the tallest trees. In fact many communities in PNG that are still out of cotact.
But for them scaling a peak or climbing a tall tree are worth the pain and sweat if they are able to hear the voice of their loved ones. I’ve been there myself and know the feeling which many Papua New Guineans share. It's a great feeling.
I remember the days when we gave envelopes and parcels to a friend or relative departing our village to pass on to the recipient and then waited for months -sometimes years - for a reply. If we were lucky the package reached its destination.
At times of critical news to do with deaths, births or major life events passed through multiple people and many days to reach its destination. I recall those days well enough to say that the introduction of mobile phones was a major breakthrough; a much needed intervention.
Now I’m afraid that those dreadful days are about to resurface with the de-activation of thousands if not millions of SIM cards.
While urban phone users have multiple options available to them to register SIM cards, the millions-strong rural majority will be caught by surprise if NICTA does not find a way to register their SIM cards.
More awareness is needed in rural areas to ensure that as many users as possible register their SIM cards. It will be unjust and unfair if rural phone users miss out – and of course this will also affect their families and relatives living in urban areas who will be unable to contact them.
There are options for NICTA to register rural phone users. They could work with government agencies such as councils, district administrations and provincial governments to assist with registration.
The much talked about national identification card project, if done properly, would be a huge help to this process. But, of course, it as never been implemented.
NICTA could also explore electronic or online registration of phones; much like how survey questions are delivered digitally through phones. This would allow registration to be done without the need for NICTA or other authorities to be physically present.
The short wave radio service will be crucial in communicating information to rural folk. In its absence it's great to see Digicel widely disseminating NICTA's announcement to the masses but the challenge for most rural people is that the venues for registration are in urban centres.
For mobile phone companies such as Digicel, the loss of rural phone users will mean the loss of a significant chunk of their revenue.
Research indicates that most rural people use phones for calling and social media like Facebook and less for texts. These time intensive uses mean more money to Digicel and BeMobile.
NICTA now needs to clarify to the public how it plans to address the SIM card registration issue and level with us about what measures and strategies are in place to address this concern.