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Blackberry data services

While the Blackberry makes a decent smartphone (Calenday, to-do, addressbook, notes, etc), I am very interested in what else it can do. In particular, the applications that use TCP/IP to do cool stuff. Like access Google, Mapquest, the Yellow Pages, etc. Instant messenger. RSS. SSH. To do these things, you need a way for packets to get to and from your Blackberry. It is, in a word, complicated.

If you buy service from most cell carriers, they will sell you cell service plus data service. But it's not that simple, either. There are two tiers of data service:
  1. Blackberry Web Client (BWC, a.k.a 'Unlimited email'). This gets you a new email address, e.g. [email protected] You have to forward email here. Works, cheapest, no desktop integration. This is 20-30/month as of Feb 2005.
  2. Enterprise. This uses the Blackberry Enterprise Server (BES) and its Mobile Data Services (MDS) to handle email, desktop integration, and TCP/IP. All packets are run through the BES/MDS combo. And the BES server is thousands of dollars, and they don't have hobbyist licensing. 40-100/month as of 2/2005.
  3. OK, there's a third option. Some carriers, Nextel and Rogers as of 2/2005, provide direct TCP/IP connectivity. No firewall or APN required. About 30-50/month as of 2/2005.
Your current email/job may determine this for you. If you work for a large company, they may already have BES/MDS up and running for the PHBs that run the place. If so, congrats, you're done here. Unless, of course, they don't allow web access. If they don't allow it, your only option is to buy your own Blackberry and service.

If you're paying for your own service as I am, and looking for a bargain, then you have more reading to do. I, as most people probably will, wanted no-limits data access for the lowest price possible. I started out on Nextel's BWC plan, which I was told was $15/month on their educational pricing. However, after a couple months I was corrected; it's actually $35/month, discounted from $50.

This is more than I am willing to pay. That's $420 bucks per year, which is a lot to pay for convenience. Due to an NSF peculiarity, I cannot have my employer pay for this even though it's all about work.

As an aside - Nextel provisions their Blackberries to have the browser in WML-only mode. If you want a real browser on Nextel data service, you have to buy Reqwireless. Or keep reading.

T-Mobile almost solves the problem

After digging around quite a bit, the cheapest provider all unlimited Blackberry service seems to be T-Mobile. So I may get a 7290 (7520 for GSM, basically) or the bigger-screen 7730, and swap my 7510 for a basic Nextel cell phone. Just as I was about to buy a unit from T-Mobile, this story came out about T-Mobile blocking port 80! This would break all my programs - IM, Web, SSH, the works.

As of Feb 2005, T-Mobile has now unblocked all ports. Except that their $20/month plan is BWC, and does not include other TCP/IP applications. In other words, it's useless. If you want Enterprise, its $40/month. Still too expensive for me, so T-Mobile is out. Pity, I quite like the 7290, and United is running a promo for a free 7230 on T-Mobile.

MyBlueBerry, badly named but wonderful

After quite a bit of reading in the Blackberry forums, I found MyBlueBerry. They provide BES/MDS for $10 bucks a month, with a $30 setup fee.

In addition, they provision you with the RIM browser in full HTML + WML support. Nextel only provisions WML, so the ten bucks also gets you a top-rate web browser!

They also include Outlook integration (useless to me), and a web-based Exchange application. Very nice indeed. All the benefits of BES/MDS on the cheap.

However, as I discovered, you still need the carrier (Nextel, T-Mobile, etc) to allow access. So it's $10/month plus whatever the carrier charges for BES/MDS.

Other notes about data

It looks like most carriers will be allowing normal net access in early 2005, so this will hopefully become a non-issue. In the mean time, you can get BES/MDS access for $10/month. This forum discussion lists places to buy the service. This page explains why BES/MDS are required on some carriers. Looks like blackberry started out old-school, with a totally closed network, and is only now changing over.

Caveats about MyBlueBerry

As noted in the T-Mobile section, some carriers will not allow you to use another BES/MDS without buying their more expensive Enterprise service. Google, and read the Blackberry forums before you switch over! I got burnt on this, and am most annoyed at myself.

Various prices for data service

I've found a good reference for various carriers' prices:
  1. T-Mobile prices (20 for BWC, 30 for BES)
  2. Cingular rate plans (40-50)
  3. AT&T rate plans (40-50)
I'm now looking at T-Mobile and the 7290 again. Sigh.