In a move aimed at enhancing the personal safety of Israelis — and interpreted by some to have political implications — the Communications Ministry has issued an order that will require Israel’s five cellphone service providers to provide uninterrupted service throughout the country, including throughout the West Bank. The order would require providers to ensure reception almost anywhere — on hills and in valleys, in deserts and forests, and even inside tunnels.
The order is dependent on a hearing that will be held next month. Companies have until August 31 to file their objections to the rules. The regulations apply to 2G and 3G phone connections. The new 4G networks that are now being installed in Israel’s large cities are exempt for now.
The order requires that all five companies – Pelephone, Cellcom, Orange (Partner) Israel, Golan Telecom, and HOT Mobile – provide full service in 95% of Israel and the West Bank; the municipal boundaries of towns and cities must be 99% covered. All intercity roads and highways, as well as the train system, must have 100% coverage; that includes tunnels that highways and trains pass through. In addition, companies must ensure that 99% of calls are able to go through, even in the case of heavy network use.
In a statement, Communications Minister Gilad Erdan said that the new rules for cellphone companies “are similar to the rules I imposed on Bezeq and Hot for landline phone service. I intend to ensure that cellphone service companies provide service throughout the entire country, including the center and periphery. A strong cellphone network can save lives, and it is our responsibility to ensure that Israelis can use their cellphones from anywhere.”
Because the issue is one of personal safety, Erdan added, “the network must operate in all areas Israelis can travel, including in Judea and Samaria.” However, according to talkbacks on news sites from several people who identified themselves as leftist activists, the order is another “excuse for the government to impose its rule further on the West Bank.” According to those opposed to the orders, the rule “requires companies to make a political statement about the virtual borders of Israel, whether they support annexing the West Bank or not.” Others wrote that the new rules were probably inspired by the attempts by Palestinian terrorists to kidnap Israeli citizens and IDF soldiers, climaxing with the June kidnapping and murder of Israeli teens Eyal Yifrah, Naftali Frenkel, and Gilad Sha’ar.
Another source of opposition to the rules could come from the cellphone service providers themselves, who are going to have invest significant sums in order to fulfill the Ministry’s requirements. In a statement, HOT Mobile, one of the affected companies, said “the order entails a significant increase in the requirements for network coverage in Israel and in Judea and Samaria, in terms of area and quality of service. HOT Mobile is studying the order and will present its position within the provided period. Right now the company cannot estimate the investments and expenses that these changes will entail.”
Bezeq issued a statement on behalf of cellphone service provider Pelephone, which said that “Pelephone intends to present its opposition to the order. In our opinion this is a significant change from the conditions agreed to by the company when its license was granted.”
Yet another source of opposition is likely to be the many community groups that oppose the installation of new antennas that would be required to expand service to the level the Ministry requires. Over the past several years, many community groups have complained that cellphone antennas give off excessive levels of radiation, and have sought to remove already-installed antennas off the roofs of residential buildings, much less prevent the installation of new ones.
The Ministry is not required to adjust its order on the basis of objections by any partner. If the Ministry decided not to make any changes, the new rules could be implemented as early as September.