Digital World: Is Israel's iPad ban just about ‘standards'?

We can assume that there are interests other than science and public security at work.

iPad Apple tech 311 (photo credit: AP)
iPad Apple tech 311
(photo credit: AP)
We the people can be such babies sometimes. Just try to tell ’em they can’t have something, and watch them throw hissy-fits demanding “their right” to waste their time or money on some useless piece of junk. Here the “authorities” – usually the government – are trying to save us from ourselves, and we insist on having the forbidden fruit, paying heavily in money and resources to have what we’re not supposed to.
Don’t the authorities know how we will react when we’re told we can’t have something? Of course they do – and it could be we’re the ones being played! By inciting a snowball effect of demand when they ban a product, they inadvertently set off a black market, where people smuggle in the product in question, often “smearing” the palms of customs officials. And when all is said and done, and the product becomes “legal,” people have already become conditioned and are ready to pay even twice what it’s worth.
Did I mention this is a column about the iPad – and why Israeli authorities are banning it?
Now don’t get me wrong: the above discussion was theoretical. Only the paranoid would say that politics (as in, “We don’t want the people to have access to this product [for some reason]”) is the reason customs authorities have announced that anyone caught smuggling (a heavy but accurate description of what you have to do if you want an iPad in Israel these days) these devices into the country will have them confiscated.
And certainly we wouldn’t go so far as to think that there’s some financial shenanigans going on here: that a certain interested party leaned on the government to ban the things in order to realize a financial windfall at some later date. You’d have to be a conspiracy-theory nut to believe that!
Maybe we should just take the government – represented in this case by the Communications Ministry – at its word. According to the ministry, iPads are out because of a “standards” issue; as in, Israel’s standards are higher than the ones Apple adopted for the iPad, and to avoid problems (security, health, or otherwise) resulting from its use, the iPad must not be used in Israel, at least in its present form and/or until “further studies” of the thing can be made.
In the words of the ministry, which released an official statement on the matter: “The iPad, sold today strictly in the United States, uses a Wifi modem that is compatible with American standards. Israel’s standards are similar to those in use in Europe, which are different from American standards, which allows broadcasts at lower power levels. The broadcast levels of the device prevent approving its use in Israel.”
Maybe we should take this as the reason for the iPad ban. But we can’t, because it turns out that the chip that provides the “incompatible low power Wifi” for the iPad is present in at least two other Apple products already being sold in Israel!
What caught my attention in this story was that bit about “European” versus “American” standards. Not that I’d call myself a world traveler, but I have gotten around enough to know that everyone – in the US, Europe and even in Papua New Guinea – uses the same Wifi equipment. While the world is still divided along an electrical fault (110v vs 220v), the standards used in computing are drawn up by committees – in this case, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) 802.11 WLAN standards.
The iPad, complying with these standards, utilizes for its Wifi power the Broadcom BCM4329 Low-Power 802.11n with Bluetooth® 2.1 + EDR and FM (Tx and Rx) chip (we’ll just call it “the Broadcom chip” for short) – and that happens to be the same chip being used in the latest editions of the iPod Touch and iPhone 3GS!
So just what are these “different standards” of broadcast? A helpful reader of a blog post I put up on this subject pointed out that some countries regulate the transmitting power (apparently Israel does), and the upper broadcast limit for the US is higher than that for Israel. And indeed, the Broadcom chip is capable of broadcasting Wifi in the 5-ghz band, which is out of range for Israel.
But once again, the fact that Apple’s rep in Israel, iDigital, is happily selling iPod Touch and iPhone 3GS devices directly from the “mother ship” here in Israel put the kibosh on that theory – especially since we can assume that Apple is not making special editions of its devices for use in Israel, as opposed to most of Europe and the rest of the world (where, in fact, higher Wifi broadcast ranges, according to the list quoted above, seem to be permissible).
And as far as I know, this is the first time a consumer Wifi product has been officially banned from Israel for this reason; you see American-made and imported Wifi routers and other devices all over the stores here. The only consumer product we hear (or rather, have in the past heard) about as causing havoc with Israeli airwaves are 900-mhz cordless phones. Other theories, like the range of Bluetooth broadcast, didn’t pan out either, at least on paper.
So, I decided to take the problem to its roots: the Apple Israel people and the Communications Ministry itself. The former were of no help at all, with the spokesperson telling me tersely: “IDigital policies are in line with those of Apple’s.”
The ministry, on the other hand, was a different story. I spoke to the (only) individual at the ministry authorized to field iPad questions and asked him about this chip discrepancy: How is it that the Broadcom chip is not harmful when used in iPad Touch devices and iPhone 3GS devices but is dangerous enough to warrant confiscation at the airport when found in iPads.
His answer?
“I don’t know.”
What don’t you know, I asked, whether the Broadcom chip is in the other Apple devices, whether it’s configured differently in iPads, or whether there is some other “broadcast issue” that is problematic?
Well, he did know that the only issue was with the Broadcom chip, but as far as what exactly the problem was, or why the chip was “kosher” in other devices, he couldn’t say.
When would he “know”?
When ministry engineers do more research.
Thanks to the power of social networking, the iPad ban has made the ministry very famous – or infamous, to be more accurate (the ministry isn’t interested in headlines, the spokesperson told me).
It’s possible the engineers are hard at work on figuring out why they don’t like the iPad but do like the other Apple products, and perhaps by the time you read this, the ban will be rescinded.
But I highly doubt it. Assuming that the problem is not technical –again, there are plenty of devices already in Israel using the Broadcomchip – we can assume that there are interests other than science andpublic security at work. What interests? I’ll never tell, but I dosuggest rereading the first two paragraphs of this article for a hint.
Regardless, I have no doubt that the iPad will eventually become legal,but IMHO, it will only be when those with vested interests in banningthe things will decide that it is now in the interest to allow them in.
Meanwhile, I think there is one solid lesson to be learned from thiswhole sordid affair, which is especially relevant around YomHa’atzma’ut time. One of the ways Israel strives to protect its goodname is via better hasbara, explaining our position vis a vis the majorissues facing the country. Note to ministry spokesperson: “I don’tknow” is not the hasbara-type answer we yearn to hear from the onlyperson in the government authorized to speak about the iPad!