The telecom revolution has bypassed the villages
The Galilee village of Khawalid, population 500, won government recognition as a Bedouin village 15 years ago, but its residents are still awaiting recognition - and service - from the phone company.
Bezeq and the HOT telecommunications company, have hooked up the town of Nofit, just a kilometer away, and HOT has cable laid down just 100 meters from Khawalid. All the same, neither company has troubled to reach the tiny village, even though the law requires Israel's national telecommunications providers to lay infrastructure nationwide.
If the residents of Khawalid want to talk on the phone or surf the Internet, they have to avail themselves of cellular service.
Representatives of Khawalid have contacted both HOT and Bezeq time and again, asking for the village to be linked up to their infrastructures. After the companies dismissed the requests as not being worth their while, HOT ultimately pledged to connect the village as a matter of "goodwill," in response to a complaint that village representatives lodged with the Communications Ministry in January. Yet, the company insists that it had sufficient grounds to obtain an official exemption from the nationwide infrastructure requirement if it so chose.
The story of Khawalid is no exception. It merely demonstrates the inferiority of telecommunication infrastructure in Arab towns in Israel. While HOT and Bezeq are laying down networks to assure high-speed Internet in Jewish areas, quite a few Arab villages aren't connected at all, or are only partially hooked up.
Bezeq's own figures from 2007 show that only 85,000 Arab households had high-speed Internet access. Since then, the figure has risen to 101,000, because Bezeq has been investing in infrastructure for Arab areas.
Nationwide, 1.6 million households have high-speed Internet access. But of that figure, only 6% are Arab households.
In addition, about half of Israeli Arabs - 52% - have surfed the Internet, compared to 72% of Israeli Jews.
The Communications Ministry is aware of the infrastructure gap, and its inspectors regularly visit Arab towns to check the status of the infrastructure there. Under the present communications minister, Moshe Kahlon, there have been 40 such tours, many at the behest of frustrated residents. They visited Khawalid in January.
Under the law, the companies are required to connect every village and town in the country, however small. But the law also allows the companies to request exemptions, which are supposed to be decided by an "irregularities committee" at the Communications Ministry. It may spare the companies from hooking up specific places, on technical or economic grounds.
The snag is that the Communications Ministry never set up an irregularities committee, and until it does, HOT and Bezeq are free to do as they please.
The bigger problem is with HOT, which is a younger company. Bezeq has been around a lot longer, and reached a great many relatively inaccessible or remote spots while the company was under government control, and not governed by economic considerations.
Arab areas aren't the only ones with a problem. HOT has yet to lay down infrastructure in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in Petah Tikva, Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh and Bnei Brak. Not only does HOT consider the cost prohibitive, but it doesn't see demand in those areas as being worth the trouble of providing service. That, in turn, means that Bezeq has no competition in those places.
TheMarker has been asking the Communications Ministry about when it plans to set up an irregularities committee since 2008. The ministry keeps saying the panel will be set up any time now. In the meantime, it doesn't even have a map showing the areas bereft of phone lines.
But the Communications Ministry shouldn't bear the entire blame for the absence of the irregularities committee. It has formulated regulations to guide such a panel, but they have to be vetted by the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee - whose chairman, Ofir Akunis, refuses to approve them, on the grounds that they are detrimental to consumers. The companies are supposed to provide residents with Internet and phone service, he says, arguing that all the committee would do is authorize them not to do so. Akunis has said he would consider new ministry regulations that benefit the public.
Meanwhile, as Akunis stonewalls, HOT and Bezeq are free to continue laying infrastructure only where they deem it worth their while.
Theoretically, not only is there a solution for more remote parts of the country, but the solution is a cheap one - namely, WiMax, which offers wireless connectivity. This is a technology that has come of age, but it looks like the residents of Khawalid and others like them will have to wait a bit longer, since Israel hasn't regulated its use yet.