Badu operates a special division of a large mobile phone retailer in Accra, Ghana. Occasionally, a customer approaches his stall and hands him two cleanly manufactured SIM cards. He disappears for about 15 minutes before emerging with a Frankencard—a fusion of the two SIMs that fits into a standard slot.
Badu’s niche business grew from popular demand in Ghana, where mobile operators permit the use of just one phone number at a time. But as operators offer better deals for calls within networks, users have realized it’s more cost-effective to own a number from each. And with erratic signal quality, extra numbers offer a contingency plan in emergencies. It’s not always easy to buy or carry more than one phone, so for many, Badu’s workaround is a worthwhile risk.
Badu was the first technician he knows of to use the hack, though he has trained four others who work in his shop. The basic process is to punch out chips from the original SIM cards and rewire them into a special “host” card and install code he says originated in Finland. A more advanced procedure, which takes about three hours, can install up to 16 phone numbers with no physical hacking. Calls can only come through on one selected number, so he installs menu options to switch numbers automatically at regular intervals.
When I handed Badu my SIM cards, he warned that the operation couldn’t be reversed, then disappeared and returned with three things: two shells of SIM cards with chips punched out and a brand new creature the size of a single card. He inserted the creation into my Japanese Nokia and showed me how to select a phone number.
According to Badu, the primary driver for customers is cost, but business owners are also concerned about contactability. An entrepreneur might own multiple numbers to decouple business and personal calls and provide different numbers to various types of customers.Yet services like Badu’s have mobile operators worried. The hack takes advantage of security loopholes in SIM cards used in GSM networks. At best, it unhinges their leverage over consumer loyalty. At worst, it can lead to identity theft.
Nevertheless, the informal service has pressured the cell phone industry to offer better solutions. The same week I met Badu, I also encountered a student who designed a concept phone with four card slots.
Telecommunications have evolved since I met Badu several years ago. Phones with multiple card slots are an established product category called “dual SIM phones.” A few small manufacturers offer triple- or quadruple-slot phones. Soon, a technology similar to Badu’s 16-number procedure could install numbers directly into the phone’s memory, eliminating cards entirely.
As the industry adapts, Badu too must keep a step ahead. But with an ear close to the ground, informal entrepreneurs like him are often best positioned to fill unmet needs by exploiting loopholes until formal offerings catch up.