Palestinians Seek to Leverage Global 5G Spat to Upgrade Telecoms

(Bloomberg) -- The Palestinian Authority wants Israel to ease roadblocks stalling the upgrade of its telecommunications infrastructure, and is using a global regulatory gathering to pressure it to cooperate.

For the first time since 2015, Palestinian and Israeli officials met last week to discuss proposed Palestinian improvements. The meeting preceded Monday’s launch of the World Radiocommunication Conference, a United Nations-affiliated conclave where the Palestinians will seek oversight of Israeli actions.

Negotiations over standards and spectrum for new fifth-generation systems will be a major focus of the gathering, held once every four years. The U.S., citing security considerations, hopes to nail down leadership over the Chinese in 5G, and an Israeli-Palestinian dispute could undercut its efforts to keep the conference’s focus on next-generation technology.

The U.S. has played a role in the past in pushing for upgrades to the Palestinian telecom infrastructure, and the American Embassy welcomed the talks between Israeli and Palestinian officials, saying it hoped they will “yield results that improve the lives of everyday individuals who want peace.”

Israeli Control

Israel has kept a tight grip on broad aspects of the Palestinian information and communications technology sector even after ceding some powers to the Palestinian Authority under the Oslo peace accords of the 1990s. The Palestinians say Israel’s control of frequencies and telecoms infrastructure violates its commitment under those agreements to let them develop their own communications sector.

The inadequate frequencies and outdated technology have cost Palestinian telecom firms and the broader economy. While Israel prepares to implement 5G, the West Bank only moved to 3G last year and Gaza remains on 2G. Palestinian officials also want more frequency to allow for a third operator, in addition to Palestine Telecommunications Co., or Paltel, and Qatar-based Ooredoo.

Palestinians Seek to Leverage Global 5G Spat to Upgrade Telecoms

At the same time, Israeli operators are benefiting since many Palestinians use unauthorized Israeli SIM cards because of the better service they offer, and 7amleh, a Palestinian advocacy group, says Israel also conducts mass surveillance of Palestinian communications.

“We’re now facing a very big problem with the Israeli side,” said Ishaq Sider, the Palestinian minister of telecom and information technology, in an Oct. 22 interview at his Ramallah office. “It is not a political issue, it is a humanitarian issue to make the life of the people easier.”

Security Considerations

The Palestinians aren’t persuaded by Israel’s justifications of restrictions on security grounds. A spokesman for Israel’s Ministry of Communications declined an interview request and said it would convey its position via appropriate channels.

The joint technical committee of Israeli and Palestinian officials that met last Thursday was established under the Oslo accords to coordinate decisions on topics like frequency assignment and equipment imports, but has convened infrequently since 2000, according to a 2016 World Bank report.

“Neighboring bodies need to coordinate,” said Daniel Rosenne, director general of Israel’s Ministry of Communications between 1996 and 2001. “The practical problems there are often not trivial.”

At their meeting, the sides discussed upgrading the West Bank to 4G and 5G, and bringing 3G to Gaza, according to Samer Ali, international relations director for the Palestinian Telecom Ministry. Israel said it would study the possibility of bringing 4G and 5G to the West Bank, and agreed to have a panel discuss the frequency spectrum, he said. Approving 3G for Gaza is on the table, but awaits the formation of Israel’s next government, Ali added.

“Bottom line we didn’t get anything,” he said. “We don’t expect to get anything directly from the Israeli side.”

Palestinians have increasingly sought to use international bodies to find leverage as peace efforts stagnate, and along with other Arab states plan to ask the World Radiocommunication Conference to approve third-party monitoring of Israel’s compliance with its commitments.

“It means higher costs, it means more complications, it means your cycle for expanding your network is out of your control,” said Ammar Aker, chief executive officer of Paltel, which has more than 3 million subscribers and about $400 million in annual revenue. “We work directly on all fronts to push things forward.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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