Palestinian mobile startups welcome the benefits of 3G

As 3G reaches the occupied West Bank after Israel ended its ban, entrepreneurs see a future for tech startups.

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    Palestinian companies see a future with 3G, even if the rest of the region is working towards 5G [Tessa Fox/Al Jazeera]
    Palestinian companies see a future with 3G, even if the rest of the region is working towards 5G [Tessa Fox/Al Jazeera]

    Palestinian mobile providers began offering 3G plans in the occupied territories this week after an Israeli ban was lifted.

    Now, Palestinian startups in the occupied West Bank are looking to future opportunities.

    The two main Palestinian network providers, Jawaal and Wataniya, released their 3G bundles to the public on January 23 and 24, respectively.

    RedCrow Chief Operating Officer Laila Akel anticipates an increase in users and a decrease in cost within Palestine now 3G is available.

    Laila Akel looks forward to increased efficiency for her mobile app after 3G [Tessa Fox/Al Jazeera]

    Founded in the West Bank city of Ramallah, RedCrow Intelligence provides security warnings and analysis primarily through its mobile application.

    However, the lack of internet connectivity outside of the central population centres limited RedCrow's reach.

    "If we talk about Gaza or northern and southern West Bank, their access to WiFi is even more limited than in Ramallah. Clients need [our service] most … when they are moving," Akel explained.

    RedCrow has found success in Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon, where 3G is widely available in major population centres. But it needed to provide an SMS service for their clients in Palestine.

    The $500 average cost per month to receive text message notifications of security situations across Palestine limited the users who signed up for RedCrow.

    "It makes it cheaper for us in other countries because we don't have to pay the SMS fees [and] it also makes it cheaper for clients," Akel explained.

    Now that 3G is available across the West Bank, RedCrow will link real-time events to maps, updating clients depending on their geolocation - the location tracked by their mobile phone's data connectivity.

    Palestinian Information Technology Association of Companies (PITA) Chairman Yahya al-Salqan said there were many barriers for startups and entrepreneurs before 3G arrived.

    "Yes, we found alternatives - every restaurant and coffee shop has WiFi - but it's not to the point where startups can create a geo-based application," Salqan told Al Jazeera.

    He points to new taxi services, Rocab and Pal Taxi, available in certain cities of the West Bank that rely on geolocation.

    "Having these applications without 3G becomes useless," Salqan said.

    The introduction of 3G will make these taxi services, as well as other location-dependent services, available to Palestinians.

    International business interest

    Not only will Palestinian-owned tech startups progress and develop their ideas based on 3G across the West Bank, but markets can also open up for international companies, particularly in the field of new media, Yusuf Omar, cofounder of Hashtag Our Stories, told Al Jazeera.

    Already operating in 25 countries, Hashtag Our Stories trains communities around the world to tell stories using phones, which are then edited into news packages and streamed on social media.

    Omar chose the weekend following the 3G rollout to launch Hashtag Palestine.

    "Now is the perfect time for a video platform in Palestine. 3G has enabled these kinds of opportunities that weren't available before," Omar said.

    Within Palestine, Omar will start gathering weekly content from the public, then daily, with an end goal of producing 24-hour news on social media.

    "Especially if you want to use live video or virtual reality, places like Palestine [previously] didn't have the bandwidth to even consider a market there."

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    Omar sees 3G in Palestine providing the ability to livestream injustices.

    "At a time when there are … attempts to discredit some of the footage [coming] out of Palestine, the ability to go live on platforms like Facebook via 3G will give credibility to people on the ground."

    Israeli restrictions

    Signed in 1995, the Oslo Accords gave Palestinians the right to have their own telecommunication network.

    Even so, Israel maintained complete control over assigning frequencies, permission to install infrastructure in Area C, and the importation of equipment, subsequently delaying any 3G network.

    Former minister of telecommunications for the Palestinian Authority, Mashour Abu Dakka, was one of the first ministers to negotiate on 3G with Israel after taking office in 2009.

    "There is a clause [in Oslo] that Israel should respond to our needs within one month," Abu Dakka told Al Jazeera.

    "We should have had 3G a long time ago. Israel is doing the same as they do everything else, [reneging] on their agreement," Abu Dakka said.

    While the "official line is security concern" and "terrorists" possibly communicating with each other more freely, Abu Dakka cited commercial interest as the reason Israel prevented 3G in the past.

    Still, the besieged Gaza Strip was not granted 3G access. 

    "There isn't any meaningful understanding that security played a role. They could have an Israeli [SIM card].What's the difference between an Israeli or Palestinian mobile?" Abu Dakka asked, pointing to the fact that the central hub for all telecommunications, including landlines, mobile phones and data plans, is in Israel.

    Abu Dakka said the Palestinian commercial network loses 40 percent of the market to Israeli phone companies, though the loss in potential taxes is even higher.

    "Israel doesn't need licenses, they don't pay taxes, and they have no commitment to Palestinian customers. It's a free-for-all," Abu Dakka explained.

    He said Palestine loses $120m a year, both in commercial sales and tax revenue, because of Israel's economic advantage in telecommunications.

    Wataniya mobile sales development executive Mohammed Abunimeh calculates the commercial loss alone to be higher.

    "There are approximately 800,000 Israeli SIMs in the West Bank. Multiply this by the average pay per user, which is 60 Israeli shekels a month, by 12 months of the year, Abunimeh said.

    Commercially, Palestine loses "nearly $1.7m a year," Abunimeh said.

     

     

     

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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