It's time for government users to do some contingency planning just in case BlackBerry service is shut down, something Johanna Ambrosio sees as an increasingly real scenario. The good news: alternatives do exist.

Johanna Ambrosio, Tech Journalist

December 6, 2005

5 Min Read

With government users such a big constituency of the BlackBerry fold--around 200,000, or 7 percent of total U.S. subscribers--you might want to spend a little time thinking through a contingency plan just in case the federal judge in the case orders service to be shut down.

Most experts are saying the likelihood of that happening is pretty slim. But Judge James R. Spencer in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia has already shown that he really doesn't care a whit about what people are saying. Nor should he, of course; judges are supposed to rule on a case's legal merit and not be guided by popular opinion. And that is indeed what he seems to be doing. In his most recent ruling, last week, the judge agreed with NTP, which said that an earlier proposed settlement had never been finalized between the two parties and so was invalid.

By taking this path, the judge has proven he's not interested in the easy way out. It would have been much more expeditious to simply rule the old settlement valid, have RIM write NTP a check, and be done with this mess.

But now the two must reach a new settlement, which doesn't appear to be even close to happening, or face the increasingly real possibility that Judge Spencer orders all service stopped. In the meantime, the Patent and Trademark Office has already ruled--twice, now --that the NTP patents at the heart of the dispute are not valid, even though a jury had said they are.

Things are indeed strange on the legal front, and it's no wonder the judge has taken every opportunity to communicate how ticked-off he is over this whole thing. With that kind of mindset, and this five-year-old case having more twists and turns than a Slinky heading down Mount McKinley, pretty much anything can happen here.

Which is why the old Boy Scout motto of 'be prepared' is a good one to keep in mind around now.

RIM has said it's preparing a 'workaround' so that BlackBerry service would continue if the judge should order the service stopped, although it hasn't made public the details of what that 'workaround' might be. Maybe I'm nave, but I would think that if the judge orders the service halted, it bloody well better be stopped or else someone's in contempt of court or whatever the correct legal term is: 'in a boatload of trouble' comes to mind here.

The bigger issue, though, is that this suggests to me that RIM is not expecting a new settlement to be reached. If the parties are in serious negotiations, why would they need a workaround? Barring the judge locking both parties in a room until an agreement is reached--and again, I'm pretty sure that's illegal, too, although it's too bad he can't try that tack at this point--it might be well-worth a few hours of your time to develop a contingency plan.

Think of it as business-continuity planning.

Although RIM has said it will continue to provide service to government users, and especially emergency responders, you've got to believe that if the service is interrupted for the civilian population it will affect your agency or state, too. If most, or even all, of your suppliers and partners outside the government don't have service, who are you going to have fun e-mailing with?

OK, some things to think about as you're considering what to do:

- A great resource is the International BlackBerry User Group, which has several related links on its Web site's home page. One interesting notion from that site: move your enterprise BlackBerry server to Canada, assuming you have an office or affiliate there, and arrange with a provider in that country to pick up if and when your U.S. service is interrupted. (This might be a good time to make friends with those nice people in Customs.) Nobody knows for sure whether this will work, but it might be the least disruptive of all the options.

- Talk to your existing BlackBerry service provider and see what backup plans they have, or if they're perhaps partnering with a Canadian firm themselves. Hey, you never know. Failing that, look at other service providers in your area; Sprint, for instance, offers the Good mobile email service. Seven Networks is another mobile e-mail company, with deals with other telecom firms. And yes, this would mean you'll need to buy a Treo or some such thing, but at least you'll continue to have mobile email.

- If none of the existing telco providers in your area has a viable alternative, check it out from the other direction. There are several BlackBerry alternatives that target enterprises with mobile e-mail server products that scale, offer service and support, and provide the full boat of features and functions. Best if all, for you Crackberry addicts, some actually support your existing device. One such product is MobilePA from the U.K.'s Sirenic, targeted at large organizations and which claims to be agnostic when it comes to the device you use; it supports WAP, RIM, PocketPC, pretty much all of them. A similar promise is made by Vodafone, also in the U.K., with the additional claim of being less expensive than BlackBerry service, too, because for now the firm is waiving client license fees.

Until this is sorted out, may the Force be with us all; the last time I wrote about this issue, one government IT staffer e-mailed me to say, "Please don't take my BlackBerry away. I have an emotional attachment to it." I have a hunch he's not alone, and if Judge Spencer pulls the plug, I'm just hoping grief counselors will be made available to help crushed BlackBerry users regain their juice.

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About the Author(s)

Johanna Ambrosio

Tech Journalist

Johanna Ambrosio is an award-winning freelance writer specializing in business and technology. She has been a reporter and an editor in the computer industry for over 25 years, covering virtually every technology topic, starting with 'office automation' in the 1980s, as well as management issues including ROI and how to attract and retain talent. Her work has appeared online and in print, in publications including Application Development Trends, Government Computer News, Crain's New York Business, Investor's Business Daily, InformationWEEK, and the Metrowest Daily News. She formerly worked at Computerworld, for which she held various positions, including online director. She holds a B.S. in technical writing from Polytechnic University in Brooklyn, N.Y., now the Tandon School of Engineering of New York University. She lives with her husband in a Boston suburb. Johanna's samples of her work are at

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