For years Israel banned 3G mobile technology in occupied Palestine, blocking the high-speed data needed for GPS, streaming music, or sending emails on your phone.
The Qalandya checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah. Image: AP
At least twice a week, Ahmed Zaytoun drives from his Ramallah apartment to the Palestinian village of Hizma to visit family. To get there, he has to pass through the Qalandiya checkpoint, one of the biggest military checkpoints in the West Bank, which is notorious for traffic.
"Sometimes you have to wait 1-2 hours to get through," said Zaytoun, 28, who was born and raised in Ramallah, a mostly Arab city a few miles north of Jerusalem. Other times, there are violent clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli soldiers there, and the checkpoint gets shut down completely. "It's very unpredictable."
So he had an idea: make an app to tell people if the checkpoint is open, and if so, how long the wait is to get through. He built the app and named it "Qalandiya." It became available in the Apple App Store last month, and was getting hundreds of downloads right away.
The only problem was, third-generation (3G) mobile access hadn't yet come to the Palestinian territories. Though Qalandiya can work on 2G, it's painfully slow, Zaytoun, heavily-bearded and clad in a blue cotton hoodie, told Motherboard on a recent afternoon in Ramallah.
For years, Israeli authorities banned 3G technology in the occupied Palestinian territories, arguing it was for security purposes. The West Bank and Gaza are among the last 16 countries in the world where high-speed data access isn't available, according to the International Telecommunications Union, an agency affiliated with the United Nations. Most of the others are poor African nations or remote Pacific islands.
2G is a wireless technology first introduced in the 1990s that only allows for phone calls, text messaging and simple web browsing. Much of the world upgraded to 3G a decade ago, which can transmit 62 times the amount of data per second. Most of what people do on their smartphones—from using GPS to streaming music or video to sending emails, photos and videos to friends and family—doesn't work on 2G, or works so sluggishly as to be barely worth the effort.
Though 3G was introduced to Israel in 2006, Palestinians are still slogging along on 2G, which they've had since 1998. But in November, Israel and the Palestinian Authority signed an agreement to allow 3G networks to operate in the West Bank. Palestinian Deputy Minister for Telecommunications and Technology Suleiman al-Zahiri told The Jerusalem Post he expected the new services to be ready by mid-2016.
Israeli officials say 3G was banned in the West Bank for security reasons, but Palestinian communications officials and the tech professionals I spoke to speculate that Israel actually banned the technology to protect its own interests. "Now that Israel is moving on to 4G, the 3G frequencies are going to be available," said Peter Abualzolof, the 28-year-old CEO of Mashvisor, a startup in Ramallah. "If they'd let us have access to those frequencies earlier, it would have negatively affected their quality of service. Now, that doesn't matter anymore."
The overdue arrival of 3G in the Israeli-controlled West Bank is expected to give a much-needed boost to the Palestinian tech sector, which is still in its infancy. Today, startups in Ramallah that want to create smartphone apps often have a hard time finding developers, Abualzolof said. Mostly "because Palestinians haven't been exposed to 3G yet, so they don't understand the potential," said Ambar Amleh, a venture capitalist at The Ibtikar Fund, which invests in Palestinian tech startups.
"Once they have 3G to play with, you'll see a lot more apps being developed here," she said. "Think about it: how could someone have imagined Google if they didn't know what the internet was?"
Many Palestinians have two cell phones: a Palestinian phone they use to communicate with friends and family, and an Israeli phone they use to access 3G networks
The tech scene here is growing up fast. Shadi Atshan, a Palestinian entrepreneur who runs FastForward, Palestine's first tech accelerator, told Motherboard that when he started the accelerator in 2013, "We were pretty much begging people to take our money—and we still only had 25 applications for funding." This year, FastForward received over 180 applications.
Atshan, 33, who was born and raised in Ramallah, said that 3G coming to the West Bank would present a huge opportunity for Palestinian entrepreneurs. Though the local market here is small (there are fewer than 2 million people living in the West Bank), developers can make big bucks building apps for the larger regional market: There are about 300 million Arabic speakers in the Middle East. Since tech developers and startups in the region are mostly based in Palestine, Lebanon and Jordan, those countries stand to gain from milking that large Arabic-speaking market.
Access to 3G in the West Bank is also a boon for Palestinian telecom companies. Right now, many Palestinians have two cell phones: a Palestinian phone they use to communicate with friends and family, and an Israeli phone they use to access 3G networks, which allows them to do things like check their email when they're out and about.
Their Israeli phones are able to access 3G from the hundreds of Jewish settlements that dot the West Bank—most of which have had 3G for years provided by Israeli towers. Palestinians' signing contracts with Israeli cell phone companies means that a large chunk of their money goes straight into Israeli pockets: A recent report from the "quartet" of Middle East mediators (the US, EU, UN and Russia) found that 20-40 percent of the Palestinian telecommunications market is seized in this way by Israeli cell phone providers. And because these Israeli companies don't pay taxes to the Palestinian Authority government, Palestine misses out on about $60 million a year in lost revenue, according to a 2008 report by the World Bank.
But once Palestinian cell phone companies start offering 3G in the West Bank, all that will change. Maybe.
"It depends how this new agreement is implemented," said Nur Arafeh, a policy fellow with the Palestinian-focused think tank Al Shabaka. "The problem is that, if it's cheaper to have an Israeli SIM card, people will still use Israeli phones," Arafeh, 24, told Motherboard during an interview in Al Masyoun, the trendy Ramallah neighborhood where she lives.
While 3G access will be a huge opportunity, as long as the Israeli occupation still controls the development of the Palestinian communications industry, economic progress will be limited, Arafeh says. "The occupation is the major obstacle. The occupation micromanages every aspect of the Palestinian economy—its total control of the ICT [Information and Communications Technology] sector is just one example."
As for the Qalandiya app, it relies on crowdsourced data, most of which comes from people waiting in traffic at the checkpoint. That functionality works on 2G, but at a molasses pace. With 3G, more people will be able to easily send and receive checkpoint statuses. "There'll be more interaction and more updates than before," Zaytoun says. "And those statuses will be much more accurate."
The app already has real-time data for a half dozen checkpoints in the Ramallah-Jerusalem area. Once the entire West Bank is 3G-capable, Zaytoun says he'll expand to cover all the checkpoints in the region, of which there are hundreds. He said he envisions Qalandiya also offering real-time updates about roadblocks, protests, and other unpredictable security issues that regularly snarl traffic in the territory.
The opportunities that 3G access will enable will not end the Israeli occupation. "But it will have a small effect," Zaytoun says, "by making life a little bit easier."