After long months of negotiations with the support of the United States State Department and Quartet, Israel and the Palestinian Authority signed a deal on November 19, 2015, to enable Palestinian telecommunications companies to offer 3G services in the West Bank. Upon its announcement, the agreement was touted as a major step forward for the Palestinian telecommunications sector and an example of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation, which would pump hundreds of millions of dollars into the Palestinian economy.
However, more than a year after the signing ceremony, the agreement has not been implemented, leaving Palestinians in the West Bank without 3G services, as the rest of the world prepares to welcome 5G services in 2018.
A World Bank report in April found that the Palestinian economy lost hundreds of millions of dollars annually over the past three years because of the lack of 3G and 4G services.
“The agreement in November was an agreement of principles,” Suleiman Zahairi, the PA telecommunications deputy minister, told The Jerusalem Post in an interview on Tuesday.
“It could be another six months or it could be another six years,” Zahairi added, referring to West Bank Palestinians’ access to 3G services. “We have been overwhelmed in the specific details of implementing the agreement.”
The November 2015 deal determined that Israel would provide the West Bank’s two cell service providers, Jawal and Wataniya, with 20 megahertz(Mhz) of 3G frequencies, the minimum for two telecommunications companies to operate 3G services. The first ten Mhz would be allocated for exclusive Palestinian use, and the second ten Mhz would be assigned for shared use between the Palestinian companies and two Israeli companies, Cellcom and Pelephone.
Zuhairi said the basic reason that Israel wanted the Palestinian companies to share the second 10 Mhz is because Israel had already distributed most of its available frequencies. According to international standards, each country is allotted 60 Mhz, and Israel has allocated 10 Mhz to four companies, Cellcom, Pelephone, Orange, and Hot.
“They wanted to make sure that Israeli companies would have some access to 10 of the remaining 20 Mhz,” Zuhairi said.
Both COGAT and the Communications Ministry declined to comment for this report.
The other important part of the November agreement was that Ericsson Israel, a branch of an international mobile broadband company, would manage the the technical process of how the Israeli and Palestinian companies would share the latter 10 Mhz. Therefore, following the signing of the agreement, all that was left to do was for both the Israeli and Palestinian companies and Ericsson to negotiate exactly how to do that.
In January 2015, all parties commenced negotiations, but after months of exhausting talks, Pelephone withdrew its bid for a stake in the 10 Mhz in July and Cellcom followed suit a month later.
Zuhairi said that Pelephone and Cellcom both had concerns about the extent of their access to the shared 10 Mhz, ultimately leading them to pull out of the deal.
“Frankly the Palestinian and Israeli companies spent all that time negotiating for what turned out to be nothing,” Zuhairi said.
With Pelephone and Cellcom no longer in the picture, all that remained was for Ericsson and the Palestinian companies to agree how the latter would share frequencies with a future Israeli company.
Ongoing negotiations between the Palestinian companies and Ericsson are moving slowly, according to Zuhairi.
“We have to negotiate how to share or in other words prevent overlap between every area where there is potential for overlap between the Israeli and Palestinian sides because if there is too much overlap, both networks will fail,” Zuhairi remarked, adding that “it is unbelievable how many maps we have reviewed and the amount of detail we have discussed on all of them. It’s painstaking work.”
Overlap refers to instances where Israelis and Palestinians access each other’s networks through the same frequencies.
Such instances could occur in areas where Palestinian cities and villages in the West Bank border Israeli cities and towns in Israel proper.
“Kfar Saba and Qalqiliya, for instance, border each other and there is a potential for overlap. So Ericsson needs to make special arrangements to ensure it does not happen,” Zuhairi said, alluding to one of the tens of place where overlaps could occur.
Overlap on shared roads in the West Bank and border regions between settlements and Palestinian cities is not a problem because Israel agreed that its companies will only access the shared frequencies from Israel proper, according to Zuhairi.
Despite the complicated details, Zuhairi still has hope that a final agreement can be concluded.
“If there are good intentions, and I believe there are good intentions, I think it is possible to achieve a final agreement on how to avoid overlap for each area,” Zahairi added.
Zuhairi clarified that the key point to making progress on the possible points of overlap is to hold more meetings to finish reviewing maps of potential points of overlap.
“I am ready to sit in a hotel 24/7 until the agreement is concluded. The Israeli side only wants to meet every month or two months; that’s just not enough,” he said.
However, even if both sides resolve the overlap issues, Zuhairi said a new disagreement recently emerged and could potentially delay the process even longer. According to Zahairi, Ericsson is demanding extensive control over the Palestinian network in the West Bank.
“There is a new item that the Israeli side has brought to the negotiating table--Ericsson is demanding control over many parts of the Palestinian network in the West Bank, where there is no potential for overlap,” Zuhairi remarked.
The original understanding between the Israeli and Palestinian companies was that the Israeli company would have control over the areas of overlap, according to Zuhairi.
“Why does Ericsson need control over the network in the middle of Ramallah or Nablus? Those areas aren’t considered areas of overlap,” Zuhairi said.
In an email statement, Ericsson said “it acts in full accordance with the regulator and with its agreements with its customers,” without clarifying exactly why it wants extensive control over the Palestinian networks.
If all the outstanding obstacles in terms of overlap and control over the networks are resolved, the Palestinian companies could begin importing the necessary equipment to provide 3G services.
The import and installation process would take about six months.
“3G can change our lives. We cannot wait for it any longer,” Zahairi said.