Not any more

U.S. goes to bat for BlackBerry

In Canada on August 5, 2010 at 16:34

Talks between Research In Motion Ltd. RIM-T and the Saudi telecom regulator on Thursday made progress towards a final solution for which technical modalities will be hammered out on Friday, a source said.

But an Aug. 6 ban in the kingdom on the BlackBerry Messenger function, decreed by the Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC) earlier this week, will go ahead pending an agreement, said the source, who has direct knowledge of the talks. Saudi Arabia is RIM’s biggest Middle East market.

A number of governments, including United Arab Emirates, India and Lebanon, are demanding greater access to RIM’s iron-clad encryption system, citing national security issues. Saudi Arabia has said it will block BlackBerry Messenger service on Friday.

“RIM showed on Thursday a degree of flexibility that has not been there over the past three months. Progress is being made. We started debating the technicalities of new setups,” the source told Reuters.

The source declined to discuss what options were on the table. “RIM’s representatives [at the talks] are supposed to consult the executives at the company’s headquarters. They will submit on Friday a final solution.”

However, RIM has required that any solution it proposes be adopted by the kingdom’s three mobile phone operators: state-controlled Saudi Telecom, Mobily and Zain Saudi Arabia.

“RIM will not engage in one-to-one talks with the operators about any solution it will adopt. They will have to take it, all of them,” the source said.

The Messenger ban will go ahead starting Friday as CITC has decreed. “A mechanism to segregate the Messenger function from the rest of BlackBerry services has been agreed upon,” the source said.

Officials at CITC, including its Governor Abdulrahmane al-Jaafari, its head of technical affairs and spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.

On Thursday, the Canadian government said it is working to help RIM find a solution to a pending BlackBerry service ban, meeting with government officials in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Canada is concerned by news reports of a looming ban “and their broader implications,” Trade Minister Peter Van Loan said in a statement.

“We are in contact with officials at Research In Motion about this issue and have been working with government officials in these countries to help RIM identify their concerns and find solutions,” Mr. Van Loan said of Saudi Arabia and UAE.

He did not elaborate on the issues that concerned Ottawa over such a ban on a high-security BlackBerry service offered by Waterloo, Ont.-based RIM.

The United States said earlier Thursday that it will hold technical talks with the UAE and other countries on the threatened ban.

“We are taking time to consult and analyze the full array of interests and issues at stake because we know that there is a legitimate security concern, but there is also a legitimate right of free use and access,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said.

Meanwhile, RIM and Saudi officials met on Thursday in an effort to reach a compromise to avert a ban on Messenger service in the Middle East’s biggest economy.

RIM officials met representatives from telecom regulator CITC and three local mobile operators. “I think it will be a long meeting,” a senior telecom company executive said.

RIM’s co-chief executive officer Michael Lazaridis fought back against the demands by governments, saying in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that foreign officials were picking on smart phones to score political points.

“This is about the Internet,” Mr. Lazaridis was quoted as saying in the Journal interview. “Everything on the Internet is encrypted. This is not a BlackBerry-only issue. If they can’t deal with the Internet, they should shut it off.”

At the popular mobile phone market in Riyadh, located on a street leading to one of Saudi Arabia’s main telecom firms, shopkeepers said customers were turning in their BlackBerrys.

“Who will buy a BlackBerry now? Look, I have 10 secondhand devices left to me by their owners. Some of them told me if you get 300 riyals ($80 U.S.) for it, sell it,” said salesman Mohamed Salim.

“Lebanese expats are the only buyers: They take them to Lebanon,” he said.

A new BlackBerry handset costs 800 riyals in Saudi Arabia, where local retailers such as Fast Net and Al-Haddad have launched promotions for mobile handsets made by rivals of the Canadian firm.

Some Saudi BlackBerry users, loath to give up the Messenger text messaging function, said they had started exchanging messages on the device on how to circumvent the ban right after the CITC announced it on Tuesday.

The messages gave tips on how to avoid using Saudi mobile operators as access points to the Messenger function by reconfiguring the device settings or by downloading new software.

One BlackBerry owner said he was pleased about the ban.

“It’s a waste of time and money,” said a father of five who declined to give his full name.

“I had to buy it for the eldest of my children and since then, the little time he spends at home he is punching messages and laughing by himself. It’s not normal”.

Reuters

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