MPs, telecoms lock horns over scratch cards ban

Telecom companies had a hard time before MPs over the proposal to ban airtime scratch cards.

On Thursday morning, the Minister of ICT and Information Frank Tumwebaze led a team of officials from Uganda communications Commission (UCC) and heads of the various telecom companies to brief MPs on the impending ban of airtime scratch cards.

Government had announced August 1 as the day scratch cards would go off the market but Parliament resolved late last month to halt the implementation of the ban.

During the meeting at Parliament’s conference hall, the telecoms in a joint presentation argued that the decision to use digital airtime was based on security considerations.

They claimed that the phase out of scratch airtime cards will create unemployment reasoning that the system will instead make it easy to monitor stock.

Tumwebaze told the MPs that since the decision to ban the scratch cards was made in March, sensitization campaigns have been ongoing through the media.

Kadaga addressing the session

“It wasn’t a single decision of the Ministry of ICT but a multisectoral approach involving security agencies and telecom companies Our people don’t have much digital competence but we are sure, the way mobile money and other phone applications caught up, digital airtime will also catch up,” Tumwebaze said.

Tumwebaze spoke after the Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga had accused the telecom companies and the Ministry of ICT of rushing to implement the policy before sensitizing the public.

“We were told by the minister that you communicated these changes starting March but, we don’t know in which media you communicated. In my village of Bulambuti, you cannot get newspapers, you can only find them 10 miles away in Kamuli town. In case you did the communication using the radio, we currently have over 200 radios, I don’t know which radio to listen to, I don’t know which radio the [locals] listen to; there is a gap between UCC and the population,” Kadaga said.

UCC executive director Godfrey Mutabazi said they had placed messages on over 100 radio stations across the country in addition to other promotions and social media campaigns.

Mutabazi urged the MPs to embrace the shift which he said is the practice in many countries across the world.

The ICT sector presentation was not convincing to the MPs.

“You are dealing with only one side… I did not hear you say that you met the consumers. I wanted to hear you say that you went [around the country] and talked to the people there. Imagine, you are talking about KCCA. KCCA is in Kampala, they have access to the radios, TVs and newspapers. Why didn’t you say that you went to Kamuli and addressed the district council?” Kadaga wondered.

Kadaga was backed up by MPs, Thomas Tayebwa (Ruhinda North), Tony Ayoo (Kwania) and Juliet Kinyamatama (Rakai Woman) among others who challenged the ICT sector to name countries where scratch cards are not in use.

“Illegal deduction of airtime and data is going to increase if we allow this digital loading [of airtime] … there are times we call these service providers [to complain] but there is nothing being done,” Kinyamatama said.

“You talk of security but forget that there is a compulsion for all SIM cards to be registered. Who loads airtime using scratch cards that can’t be tracked? The whole thing is you are taking us for a ride,” she added.

Tayebwa accused the telecoms of hiding under the UCC directive but in actual sense targeting maximizing their profits.

In response, Tumwebaze said, he was also not agreeable to abrupt banning of scratch cards but instead proposed a gradual phase out of the scratch cards.