Etisalat deals to offset BlackBerry ban

Free smartphone, including the iPhone, and free minutes among offers to soothe users in case regulators follow through on threat to end service.

Etisalat yesterday unveiled its plans for BlackBerry users who will be losing the service in October. Subscribers who signed up before the end of July will be offered a free smartphone or a monthly allotment of free voice calls, the company said as it sought to reassure customers.

The details follow the announcement by the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority on Sunday that key services would be suspended from October 11 after it failed to reach an agreement with Research In Motion (RIM), the Canadian maker of the BlackBerry, over security. There are about 500,000 Blackberry users in the UAE, the bulk of whom subscribe through Etisalat. The TRA is demanding that BlackBerry data be made accessible to UAE authorities. Currently it is sent securely via servers overseas, beyond the reach of Emirati law.

Saudi Arabia's telecoms regulator also ordered a freeze on some BlackBerry services on Sunday, though reports yesterday suggested phone operators there are likely to defy the ruling. "They are likely to ignore the memo sent to them to block the service until an agreement is reached with [RIM]," Zawya Dow Jones quoted an unnamed official at the Communications and Information Technology Commission as saying. "Worst-case scenario is that they will pay a fine to the regulator after all attempts to dispute the order fail."

Ahmed bin Ali, Etisalat's head of corporate communication, said the new packages were worth "at least 10 times" what subscribers were currently receiving, although the cost would remain "the same or less". "These packages have been developed with the BlackBerry customer in mind," said Mr bin Ali. "We have looked at which services they use most often, and have replaced them with comparable services from our wide portfolio."

BlackBerry users can sign up for new packages that include SMS, MMS and data usages. The phones available include Apple's iPhone, although only customers who now have the most expensive BlackBerry package will get that for free. Others wanting an iPhone will have to make up the difference in cost between that and the cheaper smartphones they are being offered - which could be as much as Dh1,450. The offer will cover the iPhone 4, the latest version of the handset, once it becomes available in September, according to Khalifa al Shamsi, Etisalat's head of marketing.

The free phone packages do, however, require customers to sign up for another year. Alternatively, customers can take a package of monthly call time and data with no commitment. Etisalat, which provides service to around 80 per cent of the UAE's half million BlackBerry users, has set up a "BlackBerry command centre" to field customer concerns and aide in the migration process. However, it was not able to say when the changeover would begin.

The country's other service provider, du, is expected to announce similar plans at a news conference today. Other Gulf countries and India have expressed concern that messages sent through the BlackBerry are not traceable within their borders. Last night, RIM said in a statement it would not "disclose confidential regulatory discussions that take place with any government". But it added that "the location of data centres and the customer's choice of wireless network are irrelevant factors from a security perspective". This, it said, was because the BlackBerry's encryption meant its data was "no more decipherable or less secure based on the selection of a wireless network or the location of a data centre".

One solution the UAE offered was for RIM to place a network operating centre in the UAE. If RIM and the TRA reach an agreement on BlackBerry services before October 11, the offer of alternative packages will be removed, said Mr al Shamsi of Etisalat. Meanwhile, RIM has agreed to bar some 3,000 pornographic websites from BlackBerry handsets in Kuwait. Al Jarida newspaper reported that the Kuwaiti government was working with RIM and local service providers to reach a set of "legal controls that would guarantee national security on the one hand, and the rights of citizens … to use the device's services on the other". Kuwait has not announced any plans to suspend BlackBerry services.

The report added that RIM had asked the Kuwaiti government to give it until the end of the year to implement the ban.