Blackberries, The Government, And The Rest Of Us

Why should nonemergency government workers have their BlackBerry service if the rest of us are cut off?
The federal government has jumped into the BlackBerry patent dispute. The Department of Justice filed a brief with a district court, asking the judge to delay any shutdown of the popular wireless service.

This is the patent dispute that will not die. After over four years of legal claims and counter-claims, NTP and RIM announced a settlement in March, only to scuttle it by June, leaving some three million users in the U.S. scratching their heads and awaiting their fate. While many legal experts have expressed doubt that a judge would cut off that many customers, wreaking havoc in most organizations of any size, it could happen.

According to printed reports, Judge James R. Spencer in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia has said he wants to wrap this up quickly, and he is expected to rule by year-end on the question over whether the $450 million proposed settlement is valid.

Complicating matters is that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) recently issued a ruling questioning the validity of NTP's patents, and NTP's asked for another examination. Again, Judge Spencer has said he won't wait for that new PTO ruling to issue his decision about whether the aforementioned settlement should be made to stick.

And, now Uncle Sam enters the fray. Seems that up to 200,000 BlackBerry users--around 7% of total U.S. subscribers--are in state and federal government. NTP has apparently promised that government workers will not be disconnected, no matter what. These workers apparently don't want to be disconnected, and I can't blame them. And of course there's a need to keep intact the wireless service of emergency personnel.

Without a doubt, government business is urgent. But so is the business of most of the rest of the BlackBerry subscribers, I'd imagine. Or at least they'd probably say it is.

Even personal use can be urgent. Getting that call from your child when you're on the road, allowing you to catch up before s/he hits the sack for the night. For anyone who travels a lot, this can be an absolute morale-booster.

It's true, though, that for most of us wireless phone service is not a life-and-death situation. It's a nice-to-have, not a must-have, for most of the people I know. And so I wonder: why should nonemergency government workers get special treatment over the rest of the existing Blackberry base when it comes to wireless phones?

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Samuel Greengard, Contributing Reporter
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John Edwards, Technology Journalist & Author
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Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing