Compulsory SIM card registration in Papua New Guinea

Digicel staff members register customers at a temporary stand while others wait, Port Moresby, December 2017 (Credit: Amanda H A Watson)
Digicel staff members register customers at a temporary stand while others wait, Port Moresby, December 2017 (Credit: Amanda H A Watson)

The SIM card registration deadline in Papua New Guinea (PNG) has now been extended to April 30. The deadline was to be today, but over a million mobile phones are not yet registered. All pre-paid mobile phone SIM cards must be registered with a service provider (Digicel, bmobile Vodafone or Telikom) before the new deadline. If consumers do not register in time, either their SIM card will be deactivated or the operator will receive a fine from the National Information and Communications Technology Authority (NICTA) for continuing to operate unregistered SIM cards. A SIM is a Subscriber Identity Module linked to a user’s phone number and usually looks like a small computer chip. If a SIM card ceases to function, the mobile phone it is inserted into will not work; the user will not be able to make calls, send text messages and so on.

SIM cards, which look like computer chips, are inserted into mobile phones and are linked to phone numbers (Credit: Amanda H A Watson)
SIM cards, which look like computer chips, are inserted into mobile phones and are linked to phone numbers (Credit: Amanda H A Watson)

Registration involves a user providing to the mobile phone company their name, proof of identity and other details. The requirement applies to all pre-paid SIM cards in the country: those which require a user to add credit before they can make a phone call, send a text message or use data. The registration exercise does not apply to post-paid SIM cards (that is, mobile phones for which a user or employer pays a bill at the end of each month), as mobile phone companies already have contact details for these users.

In various countries, SIM card registration has been legislated. Governments often adopt such a policy in order “to help mitigate security concerns and to address criminal and anti-social behaviour”. In PNG, similar motivations for the policy have been expressed, including the need to have increased security in time for the APEC meeting in Port Moresby later this year. A concern though is that “to date, there has been no empirical evidence that mandatory SIM registration directly leads to a reduction in crime”. Indeed, in Mexico, the theft of handsets increased after a similar policy was introduced, likely because “criminals stole handsets to avoid the risk of being traced”. Mexico subsequently abandoned their SIM registration policy and later introduced a scheme for registering handsets. Several countries in Latin America have opted for handset registration in order to address handset theft.

Proof of identity issues are a major concern, as the majority of people in PNG live in rural areas and do not have written identification such as a drivers’ licence or passport. The global peak body for mobile phone companies has suggested that the “effectiveness of SIM registration solutions also depends on the availability and pervasiveness of national identity schemes”. In Pakistan, SIM registration has been successfully established, based upon a national identity scheme incorporating biometric data. In PNG, the National Identification (NID) project has been established, but it is a very challenging undertaking and to date has only registered a fraction of citizens. Issues of identification remained a significant challenge during the 2017 national election, and concerns regarding inaccuracies in the electoral roll were raised. While illegal sale of NID cards has been uncovered, NID could potentially assist with a range of activities in the future, including elections.

In December, I was reminded about the need to register my SIM cards through promotional messages, such as advertisements on radio and television produced by mobile phone companies and NICTA. I registered a bmobile Vodafone SIM card easily and quickly at a bmobile Vodafone retail outlet in Port Moresby. A staff member completed my details using a tablet. Information required included my name, address, sex, and date of birth. I was given the impression that it was not possible to leave any fields blank. I used my PNG drivers’ licence as proof of identity.

I also needed to register a Digicel SIM card, but there were always queues at Digicel outlets and the registration process itself also seemed lengthier. I had to complete a paper form and then a staff member entered all my details onto a tablet while I waited. My photograph was taken and a confirmation code was sent to my mobile phone. I needed to provide this in order for the registration process to be complete. I wanted to leave some fields blank, but was told by the staff member that if I did so my registration would not be accepted as valid. There were some questions about Digicel services, such as mobile money, which had been included. Again, I used my PNG drivers’ licence as proof of identity. I was given a copy of the paper form to keep, and was told that it would be handy if I ever need to re-activate the phone number (for instance, if my handset is stolen).

For me, the registration process was time-consuming and raised questions about privacy and data security. I worry about personal details such as my date of birth being held in databases belonging to commercial entities. For an illiterate or semi-literate PNG citizen with no drivers’ licence or other form of written identification, the process must be challenging and confronting. To address this challenge, the legislation allows for people to use a letter from a reputable person such as a pastor or village court official as a means of identification. Nonetheless, many people live a long way from retail outlets and thus they must be incurring transport costs and making a substantial effort in order to register their SIM cards. While SIM card registration is supposed to be free of charge, sources suggest that sub-contractors in some provinces are charging consumers five Kina to register.

For all the effort being made by consumers and telecommunication companies, I wonder about the extent to which the process will lead to tangible benefits for the country. Certainly, the exercise is costing the operators money, as has also been observed elsewhere. In some places, for instance Nigeria, the regulatory body has shouldered registration costs.

There may also be a risk that vulnerable or socially marginalised people are excluded from the opportunity to own and use mobile phones. The extension of the deadline may give more consumers a chance to avoid being cut off, but the registration of SIM cards in PNG remains a significant logistical challenge. When similar initiatives have been introduced in other countries, deadlines have been extended, but nonetheless SIM cards have been deactivated after the final deadline. Deactivation would likely result in decreased revenue for operators and the government through taxes.

But perhaps more importantly, this policy could lead to an absence of two-way communication in disadvantaged communities in PNG. If the few active mobile phones in certain remote villages are cut off, this could have negative implications regarding time-critical emergency communication, such as for childbirth complications and natural disasters. Citizens in such places may need to overcome further hurdles in order to ensure that they are not left even further behind.

Amanda Watson is a Lecturer with ANU, based at UPNG in Port Moresby as part of the ANU-UPNG Partnership, which is supported by the Australian aid program.

Amanda H A Watson

Amanda H A Watson is a researcher with the Department of Pacific Affairs, Australian National University. She taught at the University of Papua New Guinea’s School of Business and Public Policy under the ANU-UPNG Partnership. Dr Watson has also taught at Divine Word University, Macquarie University, Queensland University of Technology and TAFE NSW.


  • Thanks Dr. Amanda, for your analysis of sim registration, which is commendable. I write to express dissatification over fees being collected by the service provides- when people go there to register their SIM. It seems a common occurrence in towns and cities where people are alluded to pay certain fees in order to register their SIM with the service providers. I wonder the fees goes to the service providers for rendering the services to the customers- or government? It is unclear, whether the directive is from the government to allow vendors to collect fees. If not, responsible authorities should step up and correct this misfortune.

    Thank you!

  • Hi Amanda,
    PNG is experiencing similar problems Uganda faced when it embarked on compulsory Sim registration. At deadline date, millions of sim-cards were yet to be registered. In fact, the matter ended in court and the government subsequently extended the registration period by six months.

  • Good observation Amanda, I hope such exercise will minimise some chronic challenges such as elections, as you mention, and improve communication accessibility thus achieving the National government’s ambitions. The sustainability of such initiatives is always a point of contention in PNG.

  • Thank you to all those who have posted comments on this blog post. Your time, ideas and input are very much appreciated. Many of you have shared similar experiences or concerns to mine. Some of you have raised questions, which I’ll aim to address here.

    Joseph D Malabag and John I Tambiabu asked about whether SIM card registration is legally binding. Yes it is, under the SIM Card Registration Regulation 2016. The National Gazette was signed by the Governor General in April 2016.

    Festus Maiginap asked whether telecommunication companies could send officers to rural areas to register their customers. Another option mentioned in media reports since this blog post was published is that churches could perhaps assist with the registration process.

    Sabine asked about the potential for comments posted online to be traced to a user’s phone number. Stanley Spenzii Mark and Joys also posted similar queries. As much of the Internet access in PNG is through mobile phones, this may be a genuine concern. However, I am not a telecommunications engineer and I am not sure whether a phone number can be traced back – for instance, to a comment published on this blog. I’d welcome some input, if any reader has this technical know-how.

    Some new points have been raised, which could be worth further investigation. Bobby Kunda, Festus Maiginap, and Stanley Spenzii Mark raised the religious and spiritual beliefs around giving away personal data which are strongly held by some groups within PNG.

    Sabine raised the issue of handsets being shared. In my research in rural villages in Madang Province during the early days of mobile phone adoption, it was common for a woman to say that she did not own a mobile phone, but her husband did. If a woman does something illegal using a phone registered in her husband’s name, he could be wrongly brought before the courts, as Sabine implies.

    Stanley Spenzii Mark shared his experience of needing to register a post-paid SIM card. He was able to register his relatives’ numbers at a bmobile Vodafone outlet in Port Moresby, even though his relatives are in the highlands!

    Some suggestions have been put forth too. Urith suggested that the SIM card registration exercise could have been undertaken in partnership with the National Identification (NID) project. To me, this seems like a good idea, but it’s possibly too late to implement it now.

    Stotick Kaprangi suggested that Digicel could register SIM cards through an online system. Stotick, this may not help rural villagers too much as many of them would struggle to have the Internet access needed to complete the process. In Indonesia, telecommunication companies are registering SIM cards through online systems, through text messaging, through stores, or through a call centre. The difference is that in Indonesia citizens have identification numbers, so they can use these to register. The PNG context is different and the challenge of so many people not having any form of written identification (or an identification number) is a big hurdle when it comes to SIM card registration.

  • This was a really interesting read. Unfortunately I didn’t have time to read all the comments, but a couple stuck out:

    1) Cracking down on activists as a motivation for the scheme. Does the registration therefore mean that mobile phone users cannot participate in online discussions anonymously?

    2) The possibility that national security could be worsened if corrupt officials are able to get their hands on otherwise private data (if I read one of the comments correctly).

    I’m also interested in what happens if people share a mobile phone. Is the person whose name the SIM is registered to responsible in any way for crime committed by another person who is using that phone?

  • Hi Amanda,

    Great and timely write up

    From my observation, most people living in the rural areas are yet to register their Sim Cards and possibly will face deactivation of their Sim Cards.

  • Hi Amanda,
    Great blog by the way!

    Yes it was predicted well ahead there’d be a delay in having all mobile phone users register their SIM cards on the initial deadline, thus the extension date wasn’t a surprise to many. However, I am not sure the extended deadline of April 30 gives enough time for the exercise as the country’s demography and geography does stand in the way. I also believe there hasn’t been enough awareness done to educate the public and many are already linking this exercise to ‘signs of the last days’ or ‘Mark of the beast (666)’.

    One question I pose, however, is are these mobile phone companies willing to incur added expenses by sending agents out into the remote parts of the country to assist in the registration process rather than having the people meet the expense of transportation and meals etc. just to get to the nearest centre where they can have their SIM registered? Being a local myself, I know how daunting it is for a mere villager to save enough money in order to make trips into town. But then again, I know for sure the operators will not willingly deploy agents as that’d be a costly exercise apart from what is already being spent on advertising and marketing campaigns. With the current economic scenario we’re in, companies/organisations are serious on cutting down costs.

    That being said, I say the registration exercise be extended to a year, giving enough time for mobile phone operators and NICTA to educate the public, targeting those is remote parts of the country. The registration process can ride on the back of the awareness exercise in order to cut down costs while reaching the majority at the same time.

    Just my thoughts though 🙂

  • The social issues surrounding the SIM Card Registration exercise are covered so well in this article. The one that strikes me most is the one about providing identification or NID for that matter to be able to register.

    I’ve registered the three SIM cards I use for communication – Digicel, Bmobile and Telikom. The latter two were registered upon being bought last year. But the Digicel one took time and had to go through a process described in the article. I have an NID card so was bit easier for me but my brothers and some friends couldn’t do so right away as they didn’t have accepted proof of identity. They had to go and look for K2 before registering their SIM cards, based on a ready -made Stat Dec. The same thing happened when I went home in Central Province for holidays during the festive season. Village people were more like given no choice but to pay before registering. Why? Because they need the phone with the SIM to use for communication with the outside world and especially for emergency or needs-based purposes. That’s has been there improved source of communication and development, if you like, since the competition game was introduced for mobile companies in PNG. But unfortunately, many are not likely to meet this and will affect their lives. Something really worth considering. It’s like taking a step back after taking a leap.

  • I am also uncomfortable that commercial entities will have my personal details, but it’s not uncommon in today’s business world.
    Its a little housekeeping.
    NICTA is putting pressure on telecoms companies for those said reasons, but I’m inclined to believe its a scramble to leverage the struggling National ID card (NID) process. We’ve not been able to adequately conduct a census, to then make projections to then plan ahead and be prepared to handle the load. The pressure is on our government to get those stats right in order to do business with global institutions/governments – because our government has not been able to achieve some of our core goals. Primary Education is an example – this relies heavily on an effective census.
    Having said that, it is not as clear cut as this – I understand the layered faculties that determine government’s success.

    I do hope, however, that NICTA’s SIM registration exercise results in an improved governance process if anything. The advancements in telecoms has greatly increased citizen voice, especially with regards to accessing the media and decision-makers. So we can be diligent to ensure that NICTA does not use its SIM database to curtail these achievements.

    My 2 toea.

  • Hi Amanda, thank you for this write up.

    i) Registering via Digicel
    It is indeed an issue registering people in the remote areas. My Digicel number is a CUG. However, Digicel agents came to my workplace and I was told to register again. I still don’t know why I registered my CUG number again. This makes me to question the safety of our privacy (personal identity and information) at these telecommunication companies’ database.

    ii) Registering via Bemobile
    For my Bemobile, I registered it at an outlet at Vision City. This was fast and easy and I used my Nambawan Super ID card.

    iii) Remote areas registration
    My mum and dad and uncles are in the village in Enga Province and have not registered. So I asked the Bemobile agent if I could register their numbers under my identity information. The answer was YES! WOW! And I did register my mum, dad and uncle’s numbers under me but I provided their names. This is with Bemobile. I don’t know if Digicel and Telikom are doing this. It’s a good idea by Bemobile.

    iv) Data collected
    I personally think that getting date of birth and too much information is necessary and is risky. We cannot give everything about us away to a system that is in question about data protection etc.

    v) Too early
    I also think SIM registration is too early for the entire country. I am saying this based on a few reasons. One: Vast majority in rural areas will suffer when numbers get deactivated. Therefore, deadline should be extended to 2019. Two: Awareness must be done before registration because many Christians think this is 666 making its way in.

    vi) Enemy risk
    Some politicians, businessman/women, etc. need to protect themselves by using more than two mobile numbers. I personally, use two-three Digicel numbers to protect myself because I have trouble back in my village. This helps protect me. There are stories that individual’s mobile numbers and locations are getting out from the telecommunication companies data base to enemies and increasing risks. We need to hold 2-3 numbers to make our movements unpredictable. Only the ones at risk would know what I am talking about here. I will make it short and stop here.

    vii) APEC is not the true reason
    I personally think APEC security is not the reason. It’s an EXCUSE to actually fast track this SIM registration so that politicians can crack down on activists who are so vocal on our political, social and environmental issues. I am saying this because the sim registration doesn’t seem to consider the ones in the remote areas and looks like targeting the ones in the towns and cities. We all have read and seen activists being vocal on social media on politicians and issues affecting our economy and well-being. And this SIM registration is the true strategy implemented as per the new cyber policy to crack down on these activists. The illiterate in remote areas done go on social media so they don’t matter. The ones in cities going on social media matter the most! This SIM registration exercise is serving a minority’s SELF-INTEREST. Thus, it will supress freedom of speech and Lord knows what happens next.

    viii) Too Early
    SIM registration is too early. It was not planned. It just popped out form desperation. As some of the commenters have said, there was not proper plan upon thorough research to include people in remote areas.

    ix) Registering mobile with NID
    We are also registering our mobile numbers during NID registration. What is this about and what’s the SIM registration about?

    ix) Register SIM after NID
    It’s simple. Let us complete NID registration thoroughly covering the entire country before jumping to SIM registration. I believe once NID is completed successfully, SIM registration will be very easy. Probably, NICTA and NID offices are recruiting dumb consultants. Larem mipla mekim wanpla samtimg pastem na narapla behain. Inap lo faul faul na confusim mipla just lo kisim big name.

    Amanda, thank you for this opportunity.

    Stanley Spenzii Mark
    Corporate Communication Professional

  • Great blog Dr. Watson,

    gives people knowledge not only what is experienced in PNG, but also to learn from other nations as a comparable article. Just from my observations, it was predictable that there was going to be delays based on the demography and geography of PNG and the people. Research already estimates that there is more than 80% of people in Rural areas, then there is poor infrastructure (e.g. road transportation) conditions and the incompleteness of the NID Card system which was rolled out. I wonder if adequate discussion between the regulator and the mobile phone companies were made, to minimize the gaps or plan for the delays? Also, this would mean more advertising and marketing campaign budgets would be over the roof.

    Digicel boasts owning 90% of the market share in PNG, that would probably be true with cues of people lining up to register more than Bemobile and other networks. I would assume Digicel would invest on an online platform registration system, cut back on lines, improve efficiency, reduce costs in advertising and labour cost for the registration process. But then again, the integrity of the self registration based on poor NID cards or the lack of ID from people in the rural areas, which would not be a trust worthy option. However, this seems all too predictable for this to happen, so why hasn’t there been an innovative way to register sim cards? My only recommendations, its time Digicel, Bemobile or smart tech companies invest in the people to have a creative space to share ideas and come up with solutions for issues as such. It might be the best investment decision ever made, cause the only way to solve a problem is to hear it from the daily users and it’s people.

  • Thanks for this timely write up Dr Watson.
    I feel especially for the rural majority who were put under immense pressure to register their sim cards. While the registration in the urban centres were free those in the rural areas had to foot hefty bills ( transport and other service fees etc) just to get their sims registered. We even heard of the working class having to cut short their holidays just to register.
    While the government argues the measure is for APEC security the reality still remains that security will still remain a threat. You see far more developed countries like France and England still being attacked by terrorists.
    Most definitely all Sim cards will not be registered, the telco’s will be forced to pay a hefty fine, this will also cause a drop in profit for the mobile companies and ultimately affect the tax revenue which the government is heavily reliant on.

    And I concur with you Dr Watson when you state that some personal information should not be left in the hands of commercial entities.

    Hopefully the Government can go back to the drawing board on this issue and come up with a more customer safe and friendly way of registration.

  • Thankyou Amanada for the very informative peace writing on the issue of compulsory registration of sim cards in PNG.
    I also had this concern when I was registering my sim that ,as an educated and working class citizen I felt fortunate enough to comply with it by showing at least 2 to 3 different sets of ID cards ,, but the the question is how can I contact my semi-literate mother who is living in the village and has no form of identification? Of course she may go to see the village counselor and a church pastor to identify but that will take a while since ,firstly, the pastor councilor will have more villagers running to them around the same time and secondly, writing reference is time consuming…. The PNG government has always been short-sighted and last-minute in doing things- it has a world wide reputation of that. Just because the APEC meeting is around the corner it is trying to impress the rest of the world about registering sim cards to beef up the security issue …. The security issue has always and will always be around in this country despite the registrations of the sim cards… APEC will come and go and after that will the government have better plans to tackle security issues in the country in future international events?? The government must have long-term sustainable goals to tackle security issues in the country that will solve the problem once and for all… Youth and unemployment is the cause… Have long term visions to develop the youth and create more employment opportunities for them…Otherwise they will continue to sell betelnut right in front of the traffic lights in the faces of every foreigner coming into the country including our APEC friends who will be visiting us soon.

    One more concern is that how safe is the information collected by the communication service providers ? There is a high possibility that criminals may liaise with corrupt officers to release information and launch attacks.

  • Hi Amanda,


    I agree with some of the concerns you raised in your article about the possible deactivation of mobile phones especially in the rural areas where mobile phones may be the only means of communication for assistance in emergencies. Perhaps a further extension of the deadline (after the April deadline) for SIM registration may be required for the remotest corners of PNG. Congratulations on your article! Kelly Wokam. UPNG

  • Hi Amanda,

    Thank you. This is insightful and timely write up.

    There are less and less nations where SIM card registration is not compulsory. The threats to data security you raise are however, real and so is the challenge of many people being shut out. The extension to the registration date is testimony to the challenges at hand, yet it still does not look like a good number of the current subscribers will be registered – not even by mid-year. In a country where many already do not have access to communication services it will be a draw back if those who fail to register their SIM for various genuine reasons are shut out. I personally registered two SIMs with two different MNOs. I did not find the process complicated, but it definitely was a time consuming exercise (distance and waiting time wise). There is therefore need for a realistic timeframe and deliberate effort to reach the traditionally marginalised communities. I also think more can be done to publicise the exercise as well as highlighting the benefits of SIM registration at user and societal level.

  • PNG being a Christian dominated country, people embrace their Christian believes and teaching. Thus, this can be a reason for peoples unwillingness to register. For instance, some believe sim card registration will gradually lead to one world governance and issuing of microchips (666). therefore, it is a need for people to understand the aim and purpose of this policy for it to be effective.
    In brief, Christian believes and teaching may be an hindrance and there is need for people to understand what the policy is and its aim for them to comply and register. Given the current statistics, respective service providers need to reach out into rural areas and educate people about the policy then register them.

  • Seriously the bulk of the population who live in the rural areas require more time to register otherwise communication in PNG will worsen. In addition, phone companies should take the responsibility of the costs incurred during the registration process and ensure that their subscribers are registered.

  • Hi Dr Amanda Watson

    Thank-you for your insight and research in to the SIM card registration in PNG. Unfortunately many of us have registered our SIM card numbers with our ID’s taken and some of our personal information which offers some risk if used by some unauthorised agents or organization. The government may have good intentions in legislating the SIM card registration but its true impact is yet to be realized.

    I hope the government will make the correct decision if the SIM registration exercise does not produce the outcome it was intended for.

  • Thanks Dr. Watson for the probing research done

    Just a concern citizen here;

    first the notion of sim card registration must be legally binding for all citizens and foreigners leaving in PNG. if there is no law enacted to enforce the course of sim registration then it can be challenged by our sovereign laws. Because privacy and secrecy are of paramount concern to individuals and our sovereign nation. And it is right that needs to be respected regardless of our predetermine background variables such as ethnic minorities, gender and or social standing in the community.
    Therefore, it must first be legally binding to allow is implementation


  • A very interesting piece Dr Watson. Thank you for sharing the link with Divine Word University Alumni Association through Dominic Tulo.

  • Hi Albert and all,

    Amanda has made very good observation and I supposed anything that should happen in a country is based on law and mobile phone companies I hope are registering SIMS as required under law. if there is no law people have right to complain. However if there is a written law people have no choice but laws must be enforced and people have to comply.

    I hope mobile phone companies are adhering to requirements of the law.



  • Thank you for this article Dr. Watson, it shares a lot of the same questions I’ve raised but also gives good examples of how this process has worked or has been changed to better suit the needs and capability of a country.

    It would have been interesting to have some how brought together the NID process and sim registration exercise if it were possible, some sort of link, looking at the amount of detail being given to service providers such as Digicel.

  • Thanks for the rich insights about the complexities of the SIM card registration system. It’s a good summary of issues that need to be addressed if the system is to work fairly and effectively.

  • I guess Telikom registers its users when they purchase a SIM card (I registered before I bought one). Rwanda deactivated 485,000 SIM cards after extending due dates for registration, and I wrote to The National newspaper arguing that January 20 would not work for rural communities.

    As you point out, SIM Card registration doesn’t reduce crime. There’s no empirical evidence. When revoking the mandatory SIM card registration in three years later the report from Mexican authorities stated that registration of SIM card did not help in “investigation and or prosecution of associated crimes.” United Kingdom, the Czech Republic, Romania and New Zealand have considered mandating SIM card registration but opted against. I am not surprised by PNG government’s haphazard decision to make SIM card registration mandatory. The government has a reputation of initiating ambitious projects without proper research. NID is only popular with working class population in urban areas because of threats like “No NID, No Pay” announcement by Minister for National Planning (and for identification purpose for obtaining travel doc or banks requirements for the new birth certificates issued with NID)

    Instead of making registration mandatory, the government should be improving services (e-Commerce/m-Commerce) that require use of mobile phone services. This would encourage SIM card holders to voluntarily register.

  • Thanks Amanda for doing such a lovely job in getting dates extended as many users around the country did not register their sim cards.

    • Hi Joyce.

      Thanks for taking the time to read my post and share a comment.

      The decision to extend the deadline was made by Sam Basil, Minister for Communications, Information Technology and Energy, on advice from NICTA, which is the regulatory body.

      I wasn’t involved in organising the deadline, but I welcome it. As you say, there are many mobile phone users around the country who need more time to register their SIM cards.

      Thanks again Joyce.

      Amanda 🙂

  • Hi Amanda,
    thanks for the piece and also background literature on countries who and adopted mandatory SIM registrations and have worked and not worked for them. me, like others have already registered SIMS and are discouraged by the literature that is currently coming out on the pros and cons…but thanks!!

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