It might be a bad weekend for making mobile calls in Mexico. The government there says it will disconnect tens of millions of cellular subscribers over Saturday and Sunday in an effort to rein-in Mexico's appalling and ever-growing crime rate by forcing people to register their identities when they buy mobile handsets. Martyn Warwick reports.
Organised crime in Mexico is rampant. From the by now routine, violent killings of thousands of people a year by drugs cartels all the way through to the lucrative cottage industry whereby taxi drivers kidnap passengers and, at gunpoint, force them to use their credit cards to withdraw as much money as they possibly can at cash points before abandoning them in the middle of nowhere, many areas of Mexico, and especially the sprawling cities along the border with the United states, are highly dangerous places where mobile phones are central to the criminal enterprise.
The Mexican government has been talking about a compulsory cellphone registry for some years now but, to date, it's been all hot air and no action. Now though, things seem to be changing. For several weeks past announcements have been made on TV and the radio telling the people that they must register their mobile handsets by transmitting a list of personal details to a government agency via an SMS message.
Quite how this will prove that a handset owner is who he says he is beyond me but the Mexican authorities say to some 55 million subscribers have registered themselves and their handsets. However, that leaves about 30 million or so who haven't, and they are the ones the government is threatening to disconnect this weekend.
Mobile ownership and penetration is burgeoning in Mexico but most handsets are prepaid models that come bundled with a "minutes of use" per day or week.
ARPU is low and, as and when they can afford to do so, many users top-up their minutes in small, inexpensive increments at the ubiquitous street corner phone service vendors that are now such a common feature of life in there.
Unsurprisingly, Mexico's mobile operators aren't too happy about the prospect of seeing the mass disconnection of millions of their customers - not least because of the loss of revenues that will inevitably result.
Mexico's biggest mobile operator is America Movil, controlled by the world's richest man, Carlos Slim (and we can be sure he won't be cut-off this weekend). It has a 71 per cent market share and the company is pressing the government to extend the deadline so that its subscribers will have more time to send that SMS.
Meanwhile, the country's second-biggest cellular outfit, Telefonica, is saying that will continue to provide voice, SMS and data services as usual despite the government's strictures.
In a statement, Telefonica writes, "Telecommunications are of public interest, protected by the constitution and they can not be denied to the population."
There are many critics of the governmental wheeze, with most saying the scheme is a waste of time and resources because it is so easy to register a handset with another person's identity, thus obviating the entire point of the exercise. They also point out that policing and verification of the data obtained will be all but impossible.
These criticisms are hard to refute. Indeed It looks as though the Mexican government is going ahead with what it knows is an unworkable plan just to be seen to be trying to do something about an intractable problem rather than bringing in a more sensible, more effective but much more costly high-tech alternative.
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