Youth Matters

PTA’s mobile tax frustrates customers and phone vendors

The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) invented a new system for mobile phone users, namely Device Identification Registration and Blocking System (DIRBS). Through this system, the authority intended to verify registered mobile phones working on cellular networks in the country. 

To introduce the new system to the public, the PTA made quite a few animated videos and released them on its website. Not only this, different posters were placed at popular mobile phone markets detailing how to check whether a mobile device is registered or not. 

The reason to introduce a system such as DIRBS, the authority says, is to ensure people do not encourage the business of unregistered mobile phone devices. The verification of mobile phones would also help police authorities to identify the owner in case of a crime committed.

With this new system, each handheld device would have a unique identity number based on the device’s IMEI number. But since the system has been put in place, people have raised many concerns. 

Many secondhand mobile devices, often referred to as ‘kit’ in local terms, have turned out to be unregistered under the DIRBS. What do people with those devices do? The PTA says they need not to worry about it. Any device which has not turned out to be registered under the verification system could be taken to a nearest cellular network branch to get it registered after paying a fee in tax imposed by the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR). 

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The PTA says in order to facilitate general public, the authority has nominated one officer at different branches of four cellular network services operating in the country: Mobilink, Ufone, Telenor, and Zong. But it is to be kept in mind that the tax bracket is not the same for every handheld device. 

Depending on the original price of a phone, the FBR has imposed different amount in taxes on different phones. Despite of PTA’s efforts to make people familiarise with the workings of DIRBS, there are many people who have complained about the complexity of the system. 

Many labourers and women working as house-help interviewed as a part of this report say they were able to purchase mobile phones valued not more than Rs1200 just for the purpose of making phone calls and to remain in touch with their families living in other parts of the country.

They say they were not literate enough to read or send text messages and questions how they could pay taxes on those phones now that their phones have turned out be unregistered.

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They said they bought mobile phones to be able to reach out to their families in time of need, but this system by the PTA has made their lives even more miserable. 

Financial hit in the business 

A mobile market in Karachi’s Orangi Town No. 5 area has at least 250 shops and the shop owners say majority of them deal in ‘kit’ devices. Rarely do they deal in brand new mobile phones, they say. So, the DIRBS system introduced by the PTA has given them a major hit in their business.  

A few shopkeepers interviewed for their comment on the introduction of taxes by FBR as a part of initiative to discourage the use of smuggled mobile phones, they said the government is right in its place to take action against smuggled devices. But, they added, the way the entire campaign has played out it has affected many consumers of ‘kit’ devices. 

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According to shopkeepers, a brand new mobile phone valued at Rs100,000 would easily be available as a ‘kit’ for Rs40,000. Many consumers who like to keep fast, updated and advanced phones resort to ‘kit’ devices as they may otherwise not be able to afford brand new phones.

What the PTA has done, the shopkeepers say, is to fix the tax amount on an unregistered handset by taking into account its original price. This is problematic, according to them. The argument goes like this: it is not possible for an average consumer to pay Rs8,000 in tax for an unregistered ‘kit’ device bought for Rs10,000. 

The shopkeepers say the PTA should consider revising its tax tariff and introduce a separate tax list for ‘kit’ devices depending on its value. 

Woes of the customers 

Since the system has come into effect, mobile phone dealers complain they have been put in a difficult position by the PTA. It was not uncommon under DIRBS to find many ‘kit’ devices as unregistered. 

This is where the problems began to surface for shopkeepers dealing in such handsets. A customer whose phone gets blocked naturally returns to the shop the device is bought from, says one shopkeeper in Orangi mobile market. 

Whether or not the customer knows about the new system or tax tariff, the general idea is that it is the responsibility of the shopkeeper to fix any issue. The woes of the customers: “We are not literate enough to understand these systems. A shopkeeper should know if the phone is registered or not.” The woes of the shopkeepers: “Customers bring unregistered devices to us demanding we fix them. How are we supposed to do that? They fight with us and demand to return them their money. What are we to do?”

To avoid creating scenes in the market, shopkeepers have started to put large print outs outside their shops, giving away as much information as they can to educate the people about DIRBS. 

They say this is the best they can do. Changing the culture Another popular marketplace for mobile phone devices is in Karachi’s Sakhi Hasan area, called Serena Mobile Market. The market has over 450 shops and almost all of them have switched to deal in brand new devices. 

Shopkeepers in Serena were all praise for PTA’s efforts in curbing the sale and business of smuggled mobile devices. They said it was a right thing to as customers were not aware of the scams in the business of ‘kit’ devices. While there are people who have found DIRBS a complicated tool to get hang of, there are many others who think this is a step in the right direction. 

A few shopkeepers in Serena market told this correspondent that literate audiences are now aware of unregistered devices and prefer buying a brand new mobile. They say some people even cross check the IMEI number of a brand new handset for their satisfaction, which shows that the PTA has been able to successfully spread its message. 

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Moreover, shopkeepers in both Orangi and Serena mobile markets say they try to tell people to consider buying a brand new handset rather than relying on ‘kit’ devices. 

They say there is always a risk while using a ‘kit’ device as there is no warranty and nobody really knows where did the phone come from, and whether the device is legally acquired or not. 

With the PTA cracking down on unregistered devices strictly, there have been complaints of some legally purchases phones turning out to be unregistered in the authority’s records. 

Such instances are creating problems for many consumers who are aware of the system but are still affected by it. It could well be a technical glitch on PTA’s part but a safe thing for a consumer would be to still check a phone’s IMEI number with PTA before purchasing a phone, even if it is brand new.

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