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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Palestinians get 3G legally for first time in West Bank

Two Palestinian companies, Jawwal and Wataniya Mobile, will now compete with the West Bank's black market high-speed providers — Israeli cellular firms

A Palestinian man speaks on his phone as he walks past a 3G sign outside the building of the Jawwal company, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on January 24, 2018. Mohamad Torokman / Reuters
A Palestinian man speaks on his phone as he walks past a 3G sign outside the building of the Jawwal company, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on January 24, 2018. Mohamad Torokman / Reuters

Palestinian cellular providers launched high-speed data services in the occupied West Bank on Wednesday, narrowing a technological gap with Israel after a lengthy and costly Israeli ban on the operation of local 3G networks.

Two Palestinian companies, Jawwal and Wataniya Mobile, will compete with the West Bank's black market high-speed providers — Israeli cellular firms.

Industry experts said the Israeli providers already have a customer base of some 500,000 Palestinians using smuggled, pre-paid Sim cards that connect with 3G and 4G network cell towers in Israel and Jewish settlements.

Israeli cellular companies say they have no control over where the Sim cards — many of them purchased by Palestinians working in Israel and classified as illegal by the Palestinian Authority (PA) — are used.

The World Bank, in a 2016 report, estimated that Palestinian cellular companies lost between US$436 million (Dh1.6 billion) and $1.5bn in potential revenue in 2013 to 2015 due to Israeli restrictions on frequencies and equipment imports, and unauthorised competition by Israeli operators.

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"We have launched the 3G network service in the West Bank, while the Gaza Strip is still deprived of it because of Israeli restrictions," said Ammar Aker, CEO of the Palestine Telecommunications Group (Paltel) that operates Jawwal.

3G mobile phone technology allows users to make calls and texts and gain high-speed access to the internet. 2G, the network in operation in Gaza, allows calls and limited data transmission.

Mr Aker said some $40m was invested in building a 3G infrastructure for the West Bank that includes 1,000 new cell towers. Jawwal says it has three million customers in Gaza and the West Bank, and Wataniya says it has 800,000.

Israel, where 3G networks went into service in 2004, withheld frequencies for the Palestinians for nearly 12 years, claiming security concerns — a much-cited justification for Israeli measures that result in making daily life difficult for Palestinians.

In November 2015, Israel agreed to allow 3G in the West Bank alone and not in Gaza. But Jawwal's general manager, Abdul Majeed Melhem, said Israel's approval came only after Israeli cellular providers upgraded to 4G in 2014, which kept them a step ahead of the competition.

Under interim peace deals, Israel has the final say in allocating radio frequencies in the Palestinian territories.