Barack Obama’s picture used to get mobile connection in India
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Barack Obama’s picture used to get mobile connection in India

How well do telecom companies know their customers? A little too well really. A 21-year-old in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh in India has used the picture of Barack Obama to get an Airtel connection.

There could be two things that might have happened. The man didn’t have his passport size photo on-hand and used Mr. Obama’s picture or the people who were collecting the documents have never seen Obama’s picture. Either way it’s one funny Know Your Customer (KYC) story to tell.

KYC is a requirement which the Indian government is trying to impose on banks and telecom companies where new customers have to provide ID. Take a look at the picture below from Times Of India :

Airtel-Obama

To prevent such ‘ludicrous’ irregularities, Andhra police have made some suggestions. One such suggestion is this:

The AP police have also recommended introduction of biometric system to capture the identity of the customer. It has also been suggested that the customer who wants to become a subscriber of a network provider should be physically present before the fixed centre. (TOI)

We got that covered too. The biometric system we all so wanted which already has collected biometrics for 200 million people has just issued a Aadhar card for a vegetable. An equally amusing story where a person has used a series of vegetables and greens to secure an Aadhar card (India’s most ambitious project).

In most parts of India the chances of you getting a new mobile phone connection are much higher than you finding a packet of milk. Telcos are under tremendous pressure to rack up subscribers. Hyper-competition might be the immediate reason which should get a lot of attention but rather it’s the pre-paid nature of the business.

Close to 90% of all the mobile subscriptions in India are pre-paid. Which means telcos don’t really wait for the customers to pay the bills. The bills are already paid. This takes out the incentive to really know the customer. You pay, you talk. You don’t pay, then you don’t talk. All the telco loses is a lousy chip called a SIM card.

Coming back to the Obama picture, the stand-up comedians and late night shows will have a field day. Republicans can’t really use this though.

Update : As per the recent TOI article which was published after Airtel complained, the number was never allotted. As per TOI’s original article, the number was allotted and the Nalgonda police have disconnected the number. Strange how things work in the media world really.

Telecom service provider Airtel on Tuesday wrote to the SP of Nalgonda that the mobile telephone number 9177523297 that was said to have been procured by Nalgonda resident Prasad by using the photograph of US President Barack Obama has not been allotted to any subscriber. It stated that the number is actually lying as an idle stock with its retail outlet. The letter was signed by V S VPrasad, the head of legal and regulatory functions of Airtel in the AP circle.