BlackBerry users sweat again: one week to ban deadline

Sales of devices dip as mobile users consider life without the Berry

With a week to go before a United Arab Emirates ban on key BlackBerry services is due come into effect, many users of the smartphone here are eyeing alternatives but still hoping for a reprieve.

The UAE said in August that from October 11 it will block BlackBerry messenger, web browsing and email services because they "allow individuals to commit violations" that cannot be monitored.

BlackBerry has faced similar snags in Saudi Arabia and India, where the authorities fear heavy encryption makes BlackBerry convenient for terrorists to use without being detected.

"If they block the messenger service I'll buy an iPhone. I bought my BlackBerry for this service in the first place. If stopped it'll be no longer of any use to me," 19-year-old Mahmud Ibrahim told AFP.

"If they ban BlackBerry services, I'll sell mine to someone in my country and buy an iPhone instead," said salesman Kim Betza, a Filipino.

An official of the UAE's Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) stressed that the "decision to suspend certain BlackBerry services from October 11th is final."

However, "we remain open to discussions in order that an acceptable, regulatory-compliant solution might be developed and applied," the official told AFP, declining to be named or to give further details.

Since the TRA announced the impending ban in late August, the market for BlackBerry handsets has come to a standstill in the oil-rich Gulf emirate, where there are some 500,000 savvy users.

BlackBerry sales have fallen by around 40 per cent, said a supervisor in an electronics shop, Kishore Kumar.

"Those still buying the device are basically tourists," he added.

Suppliers have also stopped providing the controversial smartphones, according to retailers.

"Since they released the news about banning BlackBerry services, we stopped receiving stocks from the supplier," said Alma Victorio, supervisor in the mobile phone section of a leading department store.

"We still have the (latest) Torch version but it hasn't been moving at all."

BlackBerry's encrypted emails and data are stored on servers in Canada, the headquarters of its maker, Research in Motion (RIM). That means that third parties, such as government security agencies, cannot monitor communications sent and received on the handset.

The UAE's two main telecom companies, etisalat and du, in August announced options in the event of a ban for clients who subscribed before the first of that month, including signing a new one-year contract and receiving a non-BlackBerry smartphone.

"We are obliged to follow the country's rules and regulations... and have launched alternative packages which would ensure the continuity of services with similar quality," Du's chief commercial officer Farid Faraidouni told AFP.

Du has "no role in negotiations between TRA and Research In Motion," Faraidouni said.

The ban will have "a very minor effect" on the telecom company's profits, he added.

Meanwhile, an Etisalat spokesman said his company had "received instructions from TRA not to comment on this issue."

Outside the Arab world, the Canadian firm is making progress in talks with India over New Delhi's demands to be able to intercept encrypted messages carried by the smartphone, according to latest reports.

New Delhi had initially threatened to ban BlackBerry's corporate email service if the firm failed to come up with ways to monitor it by the end of August. Now it has said it will review the situation near the end of October.

Saudi Arabia in August postponed indefinitely a BlackBerry ban after reporting progress in efforts to find a solution that would allow authorities to monitor encrypted messages on the popular smartphone.

Users in the UAE are now hoping for a last-minute reprieve.

For 14-year-old Sabrina Khisaf in the Dubai, "it's just not right" to suspend BlackBerry services.

"The BlackBerry ban is not justified, but if they ban it, then there's nothing I can do about it," Khisaf added, her "BB" cuddled in its white pouch.

"They must offer alternatives with similar features if they're going to ban it," the teenager said.

But the iPhone, to which desperate BlackBerry users in the UAE are turning, seems to be suffering similar setbacks in the Gulf business hub.

Buyers of Apple's latest iPhone 4 were surprised to learn that the handset's "FaceTime" application was not installed, media reported.

FaceTime, considered one of the handset's most attractive features, enables video chat in a feature similar to Skype, which is already banned in the UAE.

 

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