Denied 3G for years, Palestinians lost touch – and hope – says expert

That it took Israel years to grant 3G data frequencies to the Palestinian Authority was a bad, dangerous business decision

Hani Alami (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Hani Alami (Photo credit: Courtesy)

An agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority – with American prompting – to allocate frequencies for 3G cell communications to the PA has yet to bear fruit in the field, according to Hani Alami, one of the most “connected” professionals in Ramallah.

“There was a lot of buzz about the deal allocating the frequencies when it was signed last November, but it takes time to set up networks using those frequencies,” Alami told The Times of Israel. “I expect that the first Palestinian 3G service will be available towards the end of 2016.”

The arrival of 3G in the PAmay be too little, too late. “I am heading to Barcelona in a few weeks for the Mobile World Congress, where we will be showing off technology for 5G networks, which are the next big thing,” said Alami. “And the Palestinians are just now getting 3G, technology that is two generations old. It’s as if if I were running an auto dealership and I offered to sell you a new car – circa 2010.”

Why the delay? The bottom line, as usual, is money, said Alami.

“It’s certainly not about security,” he said. “The cheapest thing for the Shin Bet security service to do would be to give every Palestinian an iPhone 6 and institute a super-fast data network. With an iPhone, they would be able to monitor anyone and everyone to their heart’s content.”

The slow arrival of an already outmoded technology in the PA, said Alami, is due to “the greed of the sharks on both sides” who are ripping off the Palestinians by charging them top shekel for advanced services that Israeli communications firms have a monopoly on.

Israelis, too, suffer from “sharks” who seek to control sectors of the economy. Witness the “cottage cheese” protests, in which Israelis took to the streets in the summer of 2011 to protest the high price of dairy goods here. But in the PA, high prices and inferior service is not just bad business, according to Alami; it’s dangerous politics.

“In a way, the lack of advanced communications services symbolizes the hopelessness that has brought us to the current situation,” where teenagers are basically committing suicide as they try to attack Israeli soldiers, said Alami.

Under the Oslo Accords, Israel is in charge of data networks and the assignment of frequencies for cellphone and cell data networks. Until the agreement, PA cellphone firms Paltel and Wataniya made do with 2G frequencies. In the past, Israel has claimed that it did not have enough 3G frequencies to go around and recommended that the PA firms lease frequencies from the Israeli companies.

The arrival of 3G in the PA is being seen, at least by the Americans who helped broker the deal, as a cause for celebration. In remarks to a group of business professionals in Ramallah last week, Assistant US Ambassador Daniel A. Sepulveda, who Alami said had a major role in getting the deal signed, said that it could help “both Israelis and Palestinians to greatly benefit now and long into the future,” with its potential for economic development for the region. “I am convinced that its implementation will change lives for the better and serve as a model of cooperation toward a common goal,” Sepulveda said.

Would that it were so simple, said Alami.

A self-made mogul, Alami runs a Ramallah-based company called Coolnet, an Internet service provider that specializes in bringing service to rural areas where broadband is afraid to venture. The Coolnet site lists, with no hesitation, a long list of Israeli partners: Radwin, Radcom, RadVision, Ceragon, and others. In 2013, Alami rushed in with a $10.5 million “care package” to rescue Israeli telecom firm Alavarion, a 4G communications company that went bankrupt.

For Alami, partnering with Israeli firms — and with Israelis — is natural. He knows all the top Israeli tech figures, from tech guru Yossi Vardi on down, and is as at home in Tel Aviv as he is in Ramallah.

Alami is concerned about what the 3G debacle means, not just for communications but for the prospects of Palestinians’ economic future.

“The recent terror wave is clearly about hopelessness. You can’t tell me that 15-year-olds who rush Israeli soldiers with guns – and who know they are likely to get killed – are doing this for ‘nationalistic’ reasons,” said Alami. “It’s pretty clear to anyone who has eyes that we are talking about a lack of hope for the future.

“In a way, the 3G story symbolizes this lack of hope. Companies need fast Internet in order to compete in the tech sphere, and without it they will remain behind. In the same way, kids need to see that they have opportunities to develop their skills and build a future.”

Without that hope, they won’t just remain behind, said Alami – they will become the next generation of terrorists.

“It’s in Israel’s interests to promote economic stability, regardless of the politics,” said Alami. “The only thing to be gained by not promoting economic growth is the increase of a restive population that will seek to vent its frustrations. When a person has a home and a job and has to pay off a mortgage and a car loan, they very quickly realize the benefits of economic and political stability.”

Not that there aren’t efforts to change things, said Alami; he himself has been involved in dozens of projects to help Palestinian youth, especially in Jerusalem, to see the world differently, via tech. Many Israeli tech executives are already working on projects that will help raise the level of technology education and entrepreneurship among Palestinians. All of them, however, work “under the radar” in order to prevent bad publicity — or worse — that would ruin the delicate ties that many in the tech industry on both sides, Alami included, have worked very hard to build.

“It’s a matter of time,” he said. “We’ve come a long way since we started and we have a way to go, but the idea of tech cooperation with each other is something we all want, and will eventually come to the fore.”

Alami blames Israel’s cellphone communications industry, and Israel’s government for allowing the situation. “It’s interesting that Israel agreed to the 3G plan only after Cellcom, which has a lot of customers in Bethlehem and Ramallah, set up its 4G network in Jerusalem and the area,” said Alami. “Is there a connection? I would have to imagine so. Now that they have 4G, they don’t care about the 3G anymore, so they ‘let’ the Palestinians have it.”

Palestinian agents who work with the Israeli companies are just as guilty, added Alami. “The sharks get together to make their money, but what about the rest of us?”

Cellcom, Partner and Pelephone – the three largest Israeli cellphone service providers – did not respond to a request for comments on the matter.

With speedier communications, Palestinian entrepreneurs will have a chance to keep up with colleagues and competitors in Israel and around the world and enable them to be part of the worldwide tech community. That connectedness is a basic part of “hope” – and the key to the economic empowerment Palestinians need to feel in order feel they have a stake in peace, and in the future.

“Things have to change, and Israel has to show that it is interested in improving the economic situation of Palestinians,” Alami added. “We have had too much hopelessness – we need some change. Israel should learn some lessons from this 3G story.”

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