Zimbabweans hold their breath

2012-05-12 11:14

Zimbabweans remain uncertain about whether authorities will allow them to use BlackBerry phones.

This is after the Post and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (Potraz) continued dilly-dallying over the awarding of a licence to launch BlackBerry services in Zimbabwe.

Econet Wireless, the country’s largest mobile network, applied for the licence and Potraz’s indecision has fuelled intense speculation of a political hand blocking the deal.

Econet made the application to launch BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) services in March last year and a test phase availed to BlackBerry users by the mobile network in the capital, Harare, had to end abruptly after Potraz argued that Econet had not been licensed to run BBM services – even on a trial run.

Potraz at the time threatened to cancel Econet’s operating licence if it continued to test BBM services on its network. At the heart of the clash is concern that the BBM services violate the country’s Interception and Communications Act (2007), which allows for the government to intercept emails, SMSes and phone calls.

Potraz maintains that all telecommunications service providers must offer services that are “in sync” with the country’s laws – interpreted to mean only those that can be intercepted by the authorities.

The licensing authority is seen to be sceptical of awarding a licence for BBM services because BlackBerry devices use a secure encryption code that makes the interception of data impossible and is further complicated by having host servers in Canada.

Potraz director-general Charles Sibanda said the licensing authority would soon be concluding discussions. But highly placed sources at Econet, who could not comment officially, revealed that Research in Motion (RIM), the manufacturers of BlackBerry, which the network approached indirectly through an agent, decided to pull out of Zimbabwe until the “mess over licensing was sorted out and Econet was ready to launch”.

RIM is said to have raised concern that Zimbabwe was “too small a market”. Since the success of the Arab Spring and the subsequent fall of regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, which was fuelled by technology and smartphones, President Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party has been wary of technology and has kept a watch on internet activity.

Vikas Mavhudzi, a Bulawayo man, was jailed three months for writing on Morgan Tsvangirai’s Facebook wall in support of the Arab Spring.

Elsewhere in the world, concerns about BlackBerry devices being used for crime and terrorism have been raised in India, the United Arab Emirates and Syria, with authorities there seeking to have RIM either locate its servers to the host countries or allow access to its user’s data.

Nelson Chamisa, the minister of information technology and communication, who is linked to the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, told City Press this week that he had not yet been approached by Econet over concerns of the delay in licensing BBM services.

“Security fears, however, must not stand in the way of advancement and embracing of new technology that can change the way we live,” said Chamisa.

Econet has 6.4 million subscribers and it is understood that its largest rival, Telecel Zimbabwe, which has 1.8 million, has also submitted an application to have BBM services authorised by Potraz.

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