Danger: a flood of cheap Chinese cell phones in Ghana

Sat, 22 May 2010 Source: Dowuona, Samuel

By Samuel Dowuona

The replacement of import tariffs on mobile phones with talk tax in 2007 is the result of the flood of fake Chinese mobile handsets into on the Ghanaian market.

Minister of Communications, Haruna Iddrisu recently announced that the talk tax did not generate as much revenue this year as it did the previous year.

Meanwhile, due to the tariff removal on mobile phone imports, for which the country is losing money, the Ghanaian market is being flooded with sophisticated-looking but fake and ridiculously affordable Chinese mobile handsets.

On face value it looks good because tariff wave has boosted the import of handsets, leading to a ‘glut’ and huge price cuts on ‘smart-phones’. But findings by Ghanaian scientists about the sophisticated-looking but cheap phones on the market show that all is not well with patrons and users of such phones. Ghanaian scientist, Joseph Amoako of the Radiation Protection Institute of the Ghana Atomic Energy (GAEC), recently announced that a study he personally led into the levels of radio frequency (RF) emissions from mobile phone handsets in the country indicated that several of the sophisticated-looking fake and cheap phones on the market emit levels of RF radiations far high than what is globally accepted as safe.

There are two widely accepted RF emission measurements for mobile phone handsets, based on the guidelines set by three major scientific expert bodies – the International Commission of Non-Ionising Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), which is an international body, the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements (NCRP) and Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, both in the United States of America.

Between the three bodies, the approved safe levels of RF emissions for mobile phone handsets range between 1.6w/kg and 2.0w/kg. Both the ICNIRP and the NCRP/IEEE exposure criteria were developed by expert scientists and engineers after extensive reviews of the scientific literature related to RF biological effects. The exposure guidelines are based on thresholds for known adverse effects, and they incorporated prudent margins of safety. (Federal Communication Commission, 2010)

But Joseph Amoako says he and his team discovered that most of the fake handsets in Ghana emit RF radiations more than 2.0w/kg, which is beyond the thresholds of adverse effect and could therefore pose some danger to users.

Mobile phones emit non-ionising radiations, which, according to scientist from RPI and WHO, do not have the power to break DNA and therefore can not cause cancer or any serious health problem. But high levels of such emissions over a long period of time, when the phone is in use, generate heat, which could burn the user and also cause fire when the phone is on charge. In fact there have been reports of such flashy-looking cheap phones burning simcards in Ghana.

The bottom line is that even though no real health danger has been linked with emissions from mobile phones, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) have adopted the ICNIRP guidelines and have therefore called for precaution in the extent of human exposure to RF radiation. It is imperative that those standards are followed to forestall any eventualities.

Chinese phones

In case Joseph Amoako’s findings is not anything to go by, reports sourced from tonnes of websites including http://www.techtree.com, www.strategypage.com, www.dhgate.com, www.infodriveindia.com, www.unwiredview.com and www.goarticles.com, indicate that last year, 2009, the Chinese government placed a ban on the shipment of fake and cheap phones from China for two reasons; firstly, they were found not to have international mobile equipment identification (IMEI) numbers, otherwise known as Serial Numbers; and secondly there was no evidence that any tests had been conducted on those phones to check whether the levels of RF emissions from them were within the stipulated international standards.

According to the reports, initially the Chinese government sought to deny the anomalies and allowed importation of fake unbranded phones to continue, until India, for instance, banned all Chinese phones citing security reasons. The Chinese government then ordered a halt in shipment, but reports say even while the ban was in force, sales figures showed that the exports of fake phones continued unabated because no stringent measures were put in place to stop the shipments.

Some of the stories about the ban of fake Chinese phones came under the following headlines: ‘Info Warfare: India bans Chinese cells phones’; ‘Chinese phones banned in India for security reasons’; ‘Chinese Mobile: The Flip-flop Continues’; ‘Own a Chinese Phone? Check you IMEI Now’; ‘Chinese Phones without IMEI get Barred’; and ‘Phones with No or Fake IMEI to Die.’

When the stories begun to go public, the perpetrators started to issue fake IMEI numbers to some fake phones in China. As a result, several phones got the same serial numbers; others even got two serial numbers, so that in case of theft or loss, people could still not trace their phones through their serial numbers because the numbers themselves were fake. But the issue of the RF radiation levels was not dealt with and yet the shipment of such phones continues, with Ghana as one of the major destinations in recent times.

Because the levels of RF emissions cannot be guaranteed, patrons of such phones risk facing some unusual biological and possibly health effects when they use such phones. So there is still cause of concern.

Some of those fake phones can take two simcards at a time, they come with an extra battery and some of them have very attractive functions, like touch screen and others, which are not on the original genuine versions.

There is, however, ample evidence that those types of phones freeze very often, have relatively very short life spans of less than a year, and the batteries go dead in just months.

Regulation standards

It is the duty of the Ghana Standards Boards (GSB) to provide a body of standards to regulatory bodies to regulate activities of players in their respective industries. In the case of mobile handsets, Mr. Kofi Amponsah Bediako, Public Relations Director of the GSB told this writer that GSB has adopted the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) guidelines for the regulation of commercial importation of mobile handset into the country. The IEC guidelines have standards for the electrical compatibility and the general performance of mobile handsets.

Under the general performance section, the IEC has standards for safety, which includes the level of radio frequency radiation, not different from the ICNIRP/ITU/WHO standards.

But it is not the duty of the GSB to implement the standards; it is the duty of the industry regulator, in this case the National Communications Authority (NCA), to ensure that phones imported into the country met the standards adopted for them by the GSB.

The NCA has to have a mechanism in place to ensure that before any handsets get into this country and unto the market their RF emissions are at least within the IEC/ICNIRP/ITU/WHO guidelines. But here is a situation where the Ghanaian market is practically flooded with fake, sub-standard, unbranded and potentially dangerous Chinese phones and the NCA is waiting for the GSB to implement the standards, which are there for the NCA to implement.

In Australia, for instance fake phones cannot get unto the market, much more into the hands of citizens. This is because phones need to pass the test of genuineness based on clear laid down standards, to be tagged with the logo of the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), the telecom industry regulator. Citizens do not buy phones without the ACMA logo because they have been trained to know that if a phone is not ACMA compliant it could go on fire when on charge, so if you purchase such a phone you risk burning your home.

The NCA has not even started implementing standards to check the influx of fake and potentially dangerous handsets unto the market, much less educating the public about what kinds of handsets to avoid.

Checking radiation levels

There are ways to check IMEI/Serial numbers and there are ways to use the IMEI number to know the RF emission level for each phone. Just by dialling *#06# on your handset, you can know your serial number; then, in some jurisdictions, you can check its authenticity by sending an sms of the 15-digit serial number to 53232. It is a little bit more complex for an individual to check the RF emission level of his or her handset. This is also done differently in different jurisdictions. For instance in the United States, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) calls the IMEI number the FCC ID Number and it can be used to check the RF emission level of the handset by keying in the number into a search engine on the website of FCC. A similar thing can be available for handsets in the IMEI regime, which a body like the NCA must know and use to check RF levels of handsets, which come into the country.

Some of the fake phones come in the same brand names as genuine ones, except that the fake ones are cheap in terms of price, and because of the generally low income levels in Ghana, most people tend to patronise them. Those who market them probably know nothing about RF emission levels; they are only concerned with profit.

On Nokia, for instance, there are fake versions of almost all of the Nokia smart phones; E71, N95 and the rest. In some cases, apart from the marked functional differences, a careful look will also reveal a difference in spelling of the brand name. Some of the fake ones bear the inscription NCKIA and NOKLA instead of NOKIA. Samsung is also spelt SAMSONG on fake phones. But patrons do not look out for these things; they only care about getting some smart phone at a ridiculously low price.

Apart from the ones that come in the same or corrupted versions of genuine brand names, there is also an array unbranded Chinese phones on the Ghanaian market, which promise buyers sophisticated features at very ludicrous prices.

But the crux of the matter is not necessarily about knowing whether one is buying a fake phone or not, but about knowing that fake phones emit higher levels of RF radiation, which scientists say can have biological effects on the body, and can also burn when on charge. The caution is simply to beware of fake phones because as the old saying goes, ‘cheap things are not good, and good things are not cheap’ (quoted inversely). ENDS

Columnist: Dowuona, Samuel