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Palestine mobile operator struggles for room to breathe

Israel inexplicably hanging on to 1MHz of spectrum

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Palestinians signing up to their new network, Wataniya, will be disappointed come the October 15 launch date, as there won't be a network unless Israel hands over another 1MHz of spectrum.

The frequency deal was brokered by our own Tony Blair, in his role as envoy to the Middle East, and was supposed to see Wataniya holding at least 4.8MHz of spectrum by now, but instead the operator has only 3.8MHz available - less than any operational network in the world - while Israel hangs onto two slivers of spectrum it was supposed to have handed over.

Israel and Palestine are geographically close enough to have to negotiate frequencies cooperatively, but previous Palestinian deployments have been dogged by interference from unlicensed operators in Israel - unlicensed by the Palestinian authorities at least. The Israeli military also makes use of large swathes of 900MHz, which is where GSM operators like to hang out, so careful negotiation is needed.

The agreement brokered by the good Mr. Blair involved Wataniya being allocated two blocks of 2.4MHz, one at 900MHz and one at 1800MHz, with the former being temporary while a more permanent allocation was sought.

That permanent allocation was supposed to come from Orange's operations in Israel, or from the Palestine incumbent Jawwal, with a third option which would kick in if neither deal could be agreed. Strangely enough both Orange and Jawwel proved reluctant to hand over spectrum, leaving the third option which should have seen Wataniya getting 2.4MHz of spectrum at 1800MHz with which to run their network.

Only that didn't happen: instead Wataniya saw .4MHz of its 900MHz holding taken away along with .6MHz at 1800, leaving the network with 2MHz at 900 and 1.8MHz at 1800 - not enough to run a mobile network of any scale.

Not that the removed allocations are worth anything, as Wataniya's CEO Allan Richardson puts it:

“What on earth is anybody going to do with the 0.4 MHz at 900 and 0.6 MHz at 1800 that has been removed from our allocation? Of what possible use can that be to anyone, so what is the point in taking it away?”

Wataniya has already handed over $140m of the $355m licence fee it agreed to pay to launch a 2G network on October 15, but back in August made it abundantly clear that it wouldn't be able to meet that schedule (and thus pay the rest of the fee) unless it got its spectrum allocation by September 15 - which didn't happen:

"In the event that minimum radio spectrum is not allocated to meet the launch schedule, WM must pursue remedies which may include demands for refund of its license fee payment and other damages."

Israel reckons the problem is between Wataniya and the Palestine authorities. The Deputy Director General at the Israeli Ministry of Communications told PolicyTracker:

"Israel and the Palestinian Authority signed a document in which Israel committed to allocate 4.8 MHz to the PA for use by the Second Operator. So far Israel has allocated 3.8 MHz and will expand it to 4.8 MHz once possible. Expansion of the current allocation is pending on the [Palestine Authority] to take action as per the agreement"

But even when pushed, the Director wouldn't explain what action Israel is waiting for. So PolicyTracker took the question to the Palestine Authority:

"If the Israeli side continue to obstruct the release of the agreed set of frequencies illustrated in the Frequency Assignment agreement which was signed between Palestine and Israel, this will jeopardize the future of the telecom sector and all future investments in Palestine."

So there you have it: if Wataniya doesn't get its 1MHz of spectrum then it'll see the Palestine regulator in court, while Israel hangs onto 1MHz of spectrum split into two slivers 900MHz apart, for reasons that remain obscure beyond that which appears to be deliberately obstructive.

Throws Ofcom's attempts to solve the UK's the 900MHz re-farming problem into perspective at least, and makes one glad to live on a small island. ®

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