Sunday, May 29, 2011

UID as my Mobile Number. An Open Letter to UIDAI

An Open Letter.

Mr. Nandan Nilekani,

Dear sir,

Let me jump straight to an outlandish idea and then delve into the whys and hows behind it:

Why not have the UID number as the defacto mobile number of an individual?

- So if my UID is 999123456789, I can simply print it on my visiting card and folks can call me on it.
- This is truly a mobile number for life. So as a customer, I will have a mobile number that will never change.
- Gives me a very valid reason to get a UID number asap.

UID = My Mobile Number for Life.


Aadhaar is slowly but steadily progressing in its mission to provide a unique identification mechanism for this country. This dashboard for instance shows 8 million cumulative enrollments in the last 8 months which I think is pretty impressive.

As the UIDAI website notes, the Aadhaar model clearly aims at attaching two attributes to every individual in this country-

a. a unique numeric identity and
b. an authentication mechanism.

This has very very profound implications on the way things are done by most of us. Aadhaar has already laid out its plans to work with its banking partners towards extending their reach by becoming the sole and minimum criterion for getting a basic savings account, which is a great fillip to the Financial Inclusion agenda.

The one thing I have learnt to value a lot above most other virtues in my past 3 years at Eko has been the value of simplicity. At Eko, we simplified the financial identity of a customer by providing it the customer's mobile number as a transactional alias and ensured that all transactions were done as simple number dialing -today we can claim that the choices have worked for Eko, where we have processed over Rs. 15,000,000,000 in cumulative volumes- way more than what all the other 'mobile banking' initiatives in India put together would have handled in the same period.


Why not make things simpler for a few billion people, now that you've anyway embarked on this ambitious journey?

Why not provide a mobile access number to everyone, rich or poor? This could be a good utilization of the Universal Service Obligation funds with the Dept. of Telecom which I guess is well worth over Rs. 25000 crore!


In India, TRAI had mandated the following mobile numbering scheme in 2003:
XXX= Mobile Operator
YY= Mobile Switching Center
NNNNN= Subscriber Identity

However, in January this year, 2011, Mobile Number Portability was launched. MNP essentially made the mobile operator and switch lookup as described above- redundant. Since launch, nearly 10 million customers have opted to change their operator while keeping their mobile number!! This clearly shows the need for an operator neutral numbering scheme. I think the 12 digit UID number neatly fits the bill.

How do we do this? Maybe, in a similar way MNP was rolled out; I guess the Telecordia solution for MNP already has some provision to achieve this. Another approach could involve UIDAI/ its nominated partner, maintaining a national master mobile switch (just as NPCI maintains a national financial transaction switch). Lets call it NMMS.

During Aadhaar enrollment, the customer is anyways asked to provide a mobile number, UIDAI would, from that point on, maintain the UID-Mobile Number mapping and the telecom operators be mandated to push any mobile number changes to UIDAI. This database could be used to seed the NMMS.

Aadhaar also does mass enrollment drives at places where not everyone might have (or be able to afford) a mobile number. At the end of such an enrollment drive, UIDAI could provide the entire block/ list of such customers enrolled to the highest pre-bid telecom operator which operates in that region. The telcom operator gets thousands of customers in one shot, which lowers their cost of acquisition and enables such 'no-frills' customers while UIDAI gets more customers in since it is now also seen as a mobile number provision drive  (Lets face it, the grandest successful 'inclusion' project so far in India has been the telecom inclusion project driven by the telecom operators in India with over 600 million customers already enrolled. The need to communicate is perhaps the biggest implicit driver!)

Dear sir, I'm sure you'd agree that its time to move the focus from thinking about 'allotment' of UIDs to mass utilization of the same. The more use cases there are and the more compelling these are, the more will be the adoption of the UID. Mandates and rules can only take an initiative so far; Only by addressing the innate needs of people can this initiative truly expand to its true potential.

I've been an ardent fan of your vision for this country and the ambitiousness of a project like UIDAI. I hope this crazy idea finds some resonance with your thoughts.