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Telecommunication opens up opportunities for Palestinians, but also challenges

09 May 2017
By DAOUD KUTTAB

AMMAN: For years, Palestinians have been asking Israel to release their telecommunication equipment so that they can provide their mobile customers with high-speed mobile.

Israel had insisted that its refusal to allow Palestinians to use the latest technologies was based purely on security concerns.

Mashour Abudaka, former Palestinian minister of telecommunications, told Arab News that the Israeli justifications were illogical.

“The real reasons for the ban were economic and not security. They wanted to help Israeli mobile phone companies that had the 3G technology to benefit by having Palestinians buy their services.”

Abudaka elaborated why the Israeli security argument makes little sense: “All phones use the international gateway which Israel controls. You can’t make a call or have data transferred without going through the Internet and telephone equipment that it controls.”

In 2013, the Israeli reluctance to allow Palestinians high-speed mobile connectivity was raised during the visit of former US President Barack Obama.

When Obama was visiting Ramallah, a group of Palestinians put up three huge billboards that spoke directly to him: “Don’t bring your smartphone with you when you come to Ramallah, we have no 3G in Palestine.”

While it was a powerful campaign, it failed to make Israelis budge from their position; they continued to refuse to allow the two licensed Palestinian mobile phone companies to own and operate newer technology.

A Palestinian-Israeli official agreement signed recently removes the last Israeli obstacle that has held up the release of 3G equipment, which has been lying in Israeli warehouses for years.

Abudaka believes that the Israelis agreed to allow 3G as part of their phasing out of older technology, as their companies are moving on to 4G.

In order to understand the background to this decision, one has to go back to the initial Israeli-Palestinian agreement that was expected to usher in the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators agreed, in the context of the 1993 Oslo Accords and the various agreements thereafter, to share the electromagnetic spectrum, which includes frequencies for television, radio and mobile services.

A joint technical committee (JTC) was set up to discuss each side’s requirements.

Palestinians were to present their spectrum needs, and the JTC was to fulfill them within a month. In practice, however, little was achieved.

Ala Alaeddin, CEO of Intertech Co, and activists in the information and communication technology (ICT) sector told Arab News that the new 3G technology will give a great boost to Palestinian IT entrepreneurs.

“It will allow creative Palestinian talents to program many mobile applications that can now be used since data will be available on Palestinian handsets,” he said.

Since Palestine is highly wired and most people own smartphones, Alaeddin believes that many services will benefit from the availability of 3G in Palestine.

“New companies will enter this sector and benefit from the availability of data exchange on the go. Transport companies like Uber and Careem will be able to operate in Palestine now and banks will be able to offer banking services for Palestinian clients on the go.”

Former minister Abudaka, who is now working as an IT consultant, told Arab News that Israel increased the power it gave to the Palestinian mobile companies. “The companies asked for 5GEM and the Israelis gave them 10 GEM, but this was divided into two parts. The mobile company gets 5GEM for exclusive use in the urban areas, while it gets to share 5GEM in areas that border Jewish settlements.”

According to Abudaka, Palestinians traveling from Ramallah to Nablus would use the exclusive frequencies when they are within the two cities, but will use the shared frequencies once outside the city limits.

This issue was not easily resolved because both Israelis and Palestinians wanted to control the coverage in these outlying areas.

Abudaka said the problem was resolved when the two sides agreed to allow the Swedish company Ericsson to manage the shared airspace.

While many Palestinian IT entrepreneurs were celebrating the breakthrough, some were skeptical about the Israeli intentions.

Ghassan Abdallah, a math professor at Bir Zeit University, told Arab News that Israel only allowed the use of 3G services in order to better spy on Palestinians.

“Once they were able to completely control the workings of 3G to monitor Palestinians, they allowed the mobile companies to use it.”

Abdallah, however, believes that Palestinians should figure this out and create alternative technology to stop any attempts at prying into their information and movements.

Since Obama saw that sign in 2013, the World Bank estimates that the Palestinian economy has incurred a $1 billion loss in revenues.

The World Bank report, issued on April 1, cited the competitive advantage Israeli companies with 3G and 4G have over the Palestinian market.

As Palestinian telephone companies started being able to provide this new service to their customers, Palestinians began a campaign against Israeli cellphone companies.

The Palestinian government resolved to stop local merchants from selling Israeli SIM cards.

The introduction of 3G technology will boost the Palestinian economy and provide much faster connectivity to Palestinians, but with the new technology come complicated agreements that tend to make Palestinians more dependent on Israel, rather than less.

Palestinian aspirations to a totally independent and sovereign state include not only control over land but also over the airwaves that, until now, are in the hands of the Israeli occupiers.

The 3G breakthrough illustrates both the accomplishments and the challenges faced by the Palestinians in their ongoing struggle for independence.

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© Arab News 2017
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