Palestinian companies to offer 3G in West Bank after Israel lifts ban

Launch of improved coverage expected within weeks; providers were denied option for years due to security concerns

In this January 10, 2018, photo, Palestinian cellphone provider Wataniya CEO Durgham Maraee speaks with the Associated Press at his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)
In this January 10, 2018, photo, Palestinian cellphone provider Wataniya CEO Durgham Maraee speaks with the Associated Press at his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

Palestinian companies in the West Bank are getting permits to supply high-speed mobile data services to customers, after a years-long Israeli ban.

Palestinian cell phone providers Wataniya and Jawwal are expected to launch 3G broadband services in the West Bank by the end of this month, Palestinian officials said, after Israel assigned frequencies and allowed the import of equipment.

“It’s about time,” Wataniya CEO Durgham Maraee said of the anticipated launch, speaking to The Associated Press at company headquarters in the West Bank last week. “It has taken a very, very long time.”

The move to 3G comes a decade after Palestinian operators first sought Israeli permits and at a time when faster 4G is increasingly available in the Middle East.

This keeps Palestinian mobile companies at a continued disadvantage, including in competition with Israeli companies that offer 3G and 4G coverage to Palestinian customers in the West Bank through towers installed in Israeli settlements.

The Israeli ban on 3G also remains in place in the Gaza Strip, making that Hamas-run Palestinian territory one of the last without such services across the globe.

In blocking 3G for years, Israel has cited security concerns. Officials suggest, for example, that high-speed mobile data could make it easier for Palestinian terrorists to communicate while reducing the risk of Israeli surveillance. Israel’s Shin Bet security agency declined comment Sunday.

COGAT, an Israeli Defense Ministry branch, said it worked on implementing a 2015 memorandum of understanding with the Palestinians on 3G, and that it expects a launch in two to three weeks. Officials did not respond to questions about Israel’s protracted ban on 3G.

At Wataniya headquarters, where employees got 3G as part of pre-launch tests, the mood was upbeat.

The CEO said the 3G launch and the company’s recent expansion into Gaza, after Israel lifted restrictions on importing equipment, could translate into profits in 2018 — the first since Wataniya began operations in 2009 as the second Palestinian cellphone provider.

“The future is bright,” Maraee said.

This file photo taken on October 14, 2009, shows Palestinian men looking at mobile phones displayed under the logo of the Palestine phone company Wataniya, at a shop in the West Bank city of Jenin. (AFP Photo/Saif Dahlah)

But the company’s struggles also illustrate the difficulties faced by Palestinian entrepreneurs, large and small, as they operate under Israeli obstacles to trade, movement and access.

The World Bank has repeatedly urged Israel to unshackle the Palestinian economy to allow private sector growth and help lower double-digit Palestinian unemployment.

In 2016, the bank said the Palestinian mobile phone sector lost more than $1 billion in potential earnings over the previous three years, largely due to Israeli restrictions.

It noted that Israeli providers “siphoned off” as much as 30 percent of the potential Palestinian customer base in the West Bank with offers of 3G and 4G services.

Maraee said Wataniya has stayed afloat in part because of the continued support of its main investors — the Qatar-based telecommunications company Ooredoo and the self-rule government’s Palestinian Investment Fund.

Wataniya is now at the break-even point, but it once suffered losses of as much as $20 million a year, he said.

“If it wasn’t for the commitment of the PIF and the Ooredoo Group … to the Palestinian economy, probably Wataniya would not have survived under these trying circumstances,” he said.

Smaller Palestinian entrepreneurs also expect an immediate 3G bump in business.

Ali Taha launched Rocab, an online taxi booking service, last July, but has so far captured only a tiny slice of the market. He expects a significant increase with 3G, saying that customers would be able to summon a ride from anywhere, instead of having to search for a location with WiFi.

Shadi Atshan, founder of the Palestinian start-up accelerator FastForward, said he expects app development to flourish and generate more Palestinian tech jobs.

For ordinary Palestinians, everyday life will get a little easier. Alaa Amouri, 20, a student, said she gets 4G from an Israeli provider that offers only partial coverage in the West Bank.

Mobile data from a Palestinian provider would offer real-time updates on potential trouble on the roads, said Amouri, who commutes between East Jerusalem and her West Bank university, passing through the crowded Israeli-run Qalandiya crossing almost daily.

“It (3G) helps in getting news updates,” she said. “Sometimes when we are at the Qalandiya crossing, we find it blocked without knowing why.”

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