Exemption for government BlackBerry users riles others facing shutdown

'They're sticking it to private business,' says one CIO

Government workers and emergency personnel would be exempt from a possible shutdown of BlackBerry wireless e-mail service in the U.S., a situation that has private-sector users steaming.

"They're sticking it to private business," said John Wade, CIO at St. Luke's Health System in Kansas City, Mo. St. Luke's supports nearly 500 health care workers using the BlackBerry service.

In the ongoing patent lawsuit brought by NTP Inc. against Research In Motion Ltd. (RIM), NTP adjusted its injunction request in a Jan. 17 memorandum to a federal judge, saying it will not seek to stop BlackBerry service for federal, state and local government users as well as certified first responders.

Explaining that change today, NTP attorney James Wallace Jr. said that NTP is complying with a federal law that says federal workers must be automatically exempted. As for the other government entities, he said: "We're not nasty, vindictive people and we're trying to help emergency responders. But purely commercial people are going to have to stop using BlackBerry unless RIM pays" licensing fees to NTP. "RIM chose not to take out a license, and the time of the free ride is over."

While several IT managers said in interviews that they doubt a court-ordered shutdown would ever take effect, they are miffed by the possibility of an exemption for public-sector users.

That's "not fair to the private sector," said Rick Proctor, vice president of IT at Thomas Nelson Inc., a Christian book publisher in Nashville. "I understand the government's desire for an exemption for mission-critical services, but I imagine that many private-sector companies could make the same argument."

The publishing company currently supports 45 BlackBerry users, and Proctor -- joined by several other IT managers -- wants an exemption for all existing customers of RIM's BlackBerry service, a number that has reached nearly 4 million in the U.S.

"Private-sector users have the same security and critical operations issues as government workers," said John Halamka, CIO of Harvard Medical School. The medical school supports 500 BlackBerry users, including doctors and medical staff. "Shutting down the RIM network for anyone seems like an extreme measure."

Frank Gillman, director of technology at Allen Matkins LLP, a law firm in Los Angeles, argued that it would be technologically difficult to exempt only government workers, since RIM e-mail runs across dozens of third-party wireless networks that would have to be advised of any shutdown. "How in God's green Earth would they pull that off? I would think the carriers would not be happy about that at all, letting some but not all off the hook."

Gillman said he understands why BlackBerry service might be important to national security personnel. "But I have a much harder time understanding an exemption for heads of various bureaucracies, while those of us in private jobs also working day and night wouldn't be allowed to function in our own business."

One government IT manager defended the potential exemption. In Topeka, Kan., about 30 BlackBerry devices are used by public safety officials and have helped reduce the size of the city's command staff, said Mark Biswell, deputy director of IT. "I believe government agencies should get an exemption based on the use of taxpayer dollars to put the BlackBerry infrastructure in place and the potential costs associated with replacing the technology," Biswell said. "This may not be fair to private companies, but we are all taxpayers, so it makes my position easier to justify."

Gartner Inc. analyst Todd Kort estimated that up to a quarter of the nearly 4 million BlackBerry users in the U.S. could be considered government workers eligible for the exemption. But he stressed that Gartner believes there is only a 10% chance that a court injunction that shuts down the BlackBerry service will take effect.

RIM argued in its own Jan. 17 filing that exemptions would be complex to implement, but NTP believes the matter is simple. Carriers would shut off service to all BlackBerry users except for those in government who had contacted the carrier for the exemption, Wallace said.

RIM also wants more than 30 days' notice before any injunction takes effect, but Wallace said RIM has had years to fully comply.

The case is due back in court Feb. 24.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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