The Communications Ministry announced Tuesday that it was imposing a blanket ban on the import of Apple's new tablet computer, the iPad, citing incompatibility with the European Wi-Fi standard, which is used in Israel. For this reason, several such computers have been confiscated by customs officials at Ben-Gurion Airport. Eden Bar Tal, director of the Communications Ministry, defends the ban.
The public is angry following your ban on importing the iPad. Why didn't you announce this earlier? The ban was only revealed when several of the devices were confiscated by customs officials.
The ministry does not deal in brands and packaging. In this case, customs identified the import of a wireless device, and it had to determine whether it was appropriate for Israel. It's true that there is something exotic about the name iPad, but this changes nothing. The goal is that all citizens enjoy the use of wireless networks in this country; importation of a device which is not suited to local standards is likely to cause them harm. Apple itself decided to postpone the release of the iPad into international markets. These are Apple's business decisions and not ours. We are concerned with one thing only: that no wireless technology will trample the wireless connections of other users. If the iPad meets the standards set in Europe, everyone will be able to enjoy them, and we won't be forced to block their entry.
Wasn't it possible to issue a warning earlier and prevent confiscation by the customs authorities?
There was no way at all. Apple's representative in Israel, iDigital, had no information; we tried ourselves to get the specifications from Apple engineers about the frequencies and transmission strength. We worked relatively quickly. Only a few people reached customs with them. It's new in the United States too, and I imagine that despite Apple's delay, there will soon be an iPad which meets European specifications.
Israelis who acquired the iPad abroad feel that the communications ministry is sticking its nose into their private shopping cart.
People who bought the device in America can't force their needs on other people. I don't get involved in what individuals do at their own expense, but you can't only be concerned about yourself. If I let transmitters in freely, that would be against the law and also an injury to the devices operating according to European standards in Israel.
But doesn't banning an electronic device that is much in demand constitute an injury to the rights of the individual?
I state unequivocally: The individual benefits from the fact that we regulate the importation of transmission devices so that it does no harm to general use.
High-tech entrepreneurs claim that the iPad's delayed arrival places Israel behind the United States in everything connected to the development of appropriate applications.
This is cheap demagoguery. Not one representative of a high-tech development enterprise came here with an iPad; we are talking about private consumers only. If someone wants to bring in a device in order to examine it in a laboratory, we check it out and give permission.
What is your opinion of the level of competition in the mobile phone market in Israel today?
In objective terms, based on foreign price indexes, Israel is not in a bad position. I would say that there could be more competition in the private sector. But the picture is brighter in the business market, and we are working to increase competition further. We are doing this with a double-edged strategy. One: more cellular operators. Two: expanded infrastructure. This includes landlines as well as mobile phones. Today the ministry is working on a tender for the physical infrastructure for another cellular operator [to work on the same model as the three current cellular providers - Cellcom, Partner and Pelephone], alongside virtual cellular operators [who provide service on the basis of the existing infrastructure of competing companies]. In the world there are those who take road A or road B, and those who take neither. We are working on both; more than that would be hard to find.
When will we get to the stage of more competition in the market?
At the beginning of this year we formally authorized the entry of virtual providers. Meanwhile, two companies have filed requests to take part in bidding and we expect more requests soon. There are two possibilities. From the moment we grant a license to a company it can go out and work with a cellular company on the condition that it uses its infrastructure. If the two sides do not reach an agreement, we can step in and dictate conditions. In my opinion, because the cellular companies know that we can intervene within six months, they will consider whether it is worth their while to delay the process. And even in the slowest forecast, we are talking about months and not years.
Do you think that plans for unlimited minutes or all-inclusive packages, such as exist in the United States, will suit Israeli consumers?
Competition is what suits consumers. Marketing in the absence of competition will not work in their favor. No imaginable offer will be worthwhile to the consumer without competition, and we are doing everything we can to have more service suppliers enter the market. This is the way the regulator can have an affect in the field.
Doesn't this call for a new player - smaller than those currently in the market - in order to offer plans with greater risks to the company?
It's hard to see such a thing happening in a place like Israel with three companies all the same size. Market evolution usually leads to one big player and two smaller ones. Israel is a special place with special behavior. When 5 percent of cellular subscribers represent more than 450,000 people, every percentage point counts. For us it's important to offer more possibilities to private customers, and that more companies will join the market and compete for their pockets.