Zimbabwe telecoms authorities bans Econet Blackberry pilot project

Telecoms

Econet Wireless Zimbabwe has clashed with regulator Potraz (Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe) after it emerged that some of its subscribers and workers were using Blackberry services without prior licensing.

Potraz noted that some Econet workers were using the service on social sites such as Facebook, Skype and Twitter and has had to intervene to stop them.

Both sides have opted to employ diplomacy on the matter — with Potraz deputy director-general Mr Alfred Marisa saying: "We have had to intervene here and there," and Econet commenting that the regulator takes steps that may be necessary at various stages of developing a product.

This paper, however, is reliably informed that Econet Wireless Zimbabwe has been banned from using the service until it is licensed. Late last year Econet Wireless Zimbabwe engaged Canadian firm Research in Motion (RIM), the manufacturers of BlackBerry devices, for the deployment of Blackberry services in the country.

Blackberry devices and services' unique selling point, which has made them popular to business executive and corporates, is that they provide a secure form of communication, particularly through the corporate e-mail service, that is unreadable unless one possesses the encryption key.

Marisa said "they had not regularised" the use of the Blackberry services to Econet Wireless Zimbabwe as they were still considering the service.

"Potraz has the prerogative to approve any new telecommunication service that is introduced in the country and that includes Blackberry services which must get prior approval by the authority before their commercial launch for public consumption.

"The authority is still considering Econet's request to introduce Blackberry services in the market. He said that those that were using it for "testing purposes" were breaking the law as the service is still to be approved.

"First of all, the authority never issued Econet Wireless Zimbabwe with a Blackberry testing licence, secondly we do not have such a licence in our statutes," he said. Econet Wireless Zimbabwe said they were not aware of anyone who has been using Blackberry in the market, whether a subscriber or an employee.

Ranga Mberi, Econet's corporate communications manager, said "as previously stated, Blackberry is one of several value-added services that Econet has considered as part of a continuing process of investigating opportunities and developing innovations for the market.

"These processes happen to be under the guidance of the regulatory authorities, who take steps that may be necessary at various stages of developing a product. We are unable to comment on specific stages at this time. However, we continue to engage the regulator, as per custom, to ensure full compliance at all times."

Mberi would not be drawn into revealing what necessary steps Potraz had taken at what stages of the development of the product. Econet, with a local subscriber base that is inching towards the five million mark, is considered as a suitable partner for RIM, which is attracted by bigger networks.

The Blackberry Internet Service's (BIS's) main selling point is its use of RIM's proprietary push technology to Blackberry devices over cellular carriers. In essence, BIS retrieves e-mail from mail servers by polling a POP3 (Post Office Protocol version 3) server. POP3 is an Internet standard protocol used to retrieve e-mail from a remote server to a local client. RIM, based in Ontario, Canada, runs the exchange servers for its business-friendly Blackberry mobile devices and all its exchange servers are in Canada.

If one sends an e-mail from a Blackberry smart phone, the e-mail goes through as a heavily encrypted signal to exchange servers in Canada and is then sent encrypted to the recipient.

This encryption is difficult to break without the right encryption keys and hence the Blackberry smart-phone has a reputation of being secure for communication. It is widely believed that RIM has struck deals with countries such as India, Russia and China, who are sensitive to issues over corporate or industrial espionage.

Countries in the Middle East such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are extremely sensitive over fears of terrorist threats securely communicated over the device.

Earlier last week Marisa defended the country's licensing framework and described it as "conducive for operators" despite claims that it was holding back expansion plans by players.