In Israel, if It’s Wireless, You Need a Permit

It might sound funny that the Bluetooth headphone you bought abroad is illegal, but that arcane law also pushes up prices and keeps consumers behind technologically.

Meirav Arlosoroff
Meirav Arlosoroff
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Israelis talking on cellphones. The 'jury is still out' on the potential damage.
Israelis talking on cellphones.Credit: Nir Kafri
Meirav Arlosoroff
Meirav Arlosoroff

Did you buy your kid a remote-controlled car toy on your last trip abroad? Stay mum if you don’t want to risk being charged with violating the Telegraph Law.

Among the many provisions of the law, which was last amended in 1972, is one requiring a Communications Ministry permit to import almost any device that uses radio waves. That means all wireless devices except for radios and televisions – toys and garage-door openers that use remote controls; wireless keyboards, computer mice and headphones; desktop, laptop and tablet computers; GPS devices and even cellphones. All need an import permit to be brought into Israel, although some exemptions apply for small numbers brought in for personal use.

But just try obtaining a permit if you need one.

You know you’re in trouble when the elevator doesn’t go to the floor you need. The Communications Ministry’s Spectrum Management and Frequency Licensing Division is on the 10th floor of Tel Aviv’s Shalom Tower, but the elevator will only take you to either the ninth or the 11th floor.

After that brief bit of stair-climbing, you reach the door of the office. Opening hours and a telephone number are displayed prominently, but importers who are all-too-familiar with the place say the phone is always busy and the door is always locked – including during the posted reception hours and regardless of how much you knock. A spokesman for the ministry says that’s not the case.

The importers say their only recourse is to lurk outside and hope that an employee opens the door to use the restroom, which is down the hall. When that happens, each person in the horde banging down the door begs to be admitted to the division’s inner sanctum.

The title of a position paper issued in December by the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce sums it up: Titled “Difficulties in importing wireless communications equipment with respect to Communication Ministry approval,” it details the tribulations endured by importers. They say their only option is to force their way into the office or to fax their permit applications. Yes, fax.

But the fax machine doesn’t always pick up, and there is no transmission report. “I had no choice,” one importer who did not want his name published told TheMarker.

‘Living hell’

“After getting no response to my fax, I sent all the necessary materials by registered mail so I would have confirmation of receipt. They’re supposed to respond within 30 days, but of course that didn’t happen and I couldn’t determine whether the package ever got there. So I collected all the documents again and sent them once more by registered mail. This time, too, there was no response. The third time, I went to Shalom Tower to submit the documents by hand. I waited outside the door until a clerk came out. I asked him to take the envelope and he pointed toward a box at the entrance where I was supposed to put the material, but I had already sent it twice and from experience, what was been left in the box got lost too. It’s simply a living hell.”

Over the years, in an effort to ease the division’s workload, several types of devices were granted an exemption from an export permit. The import by individuals of up to three cellphones or one laptop, for example, was exempted as were devices broadcasting at frequencies at very close distances. But the importers say making use of the exemption requires confirmation from the Communications Ministry too. Yes, from the people behind that same door and the same telephone number that is never accessible. And that’s for confirmation that the exemption applies to a particular device.

In response, the Communications Ministry stated that requests for import approval are indeed still submitted by fax, but the ministry is in the process of linking up with the customs service’s computer system, which will make the faxes unnecessary. The ministry also said it is working with the Economy Ministry to change the law and exempt the import of products with Bluetooth and GPS technology from ministry approval.

The ministry spokesman added: “The ministry does not have sufficient oversight and enforcement authority to allow the import of wireless equipment without approval. A memorandum will be issued shortly that will grant the ministry administrative oversight and enforcement authority and to the extent that adequate oversight regulations are provided to the ministry, it will be possible to exempt certain types of equipment from approval where the risk of causing [communications] interference is low. In light of the huge development in the variety of wireless equipment and regulations, the appropriateness of permitted equipment in Israel should actually be examined. There is a large number of defense systems that should be checked to verify that interference will not be caused to them.”

The ministry denied that the Tel Aviv office does not have hours at which the public is served in person or that any approval is required for permit exemptions.

The importers remain about the ministry’s legal requirement for approval for the import of wireless devices. The explanation for the requirement is that improper use of wireless frequencies could disrupt radio transmissions and even aviation traffic. There is particular sensitivity in Israel over the use of wireless frequencies because almost all of them are taken by the army.

That is also the reason for the Communications Ministry’s meticulous insistence that approval is required. But the system collapses when the number of clerks in the ministry’s spectrum division remains unchanged while the entire world is now communicating through wireless and computerized technology through the Internet, mobile devices, GPSs and Bluetooth.

Israelis can import a Baby Sense infant monitor or four Bluetooth earphones with the click of a computer button on eBay only to find themselves dealing for months with customs officials over the absurd requirement that they get permission to import the items from the Communications Ministry.

Everyone hassled equally

In fairness, it should be noted that the importers say the Communications Ministry doesn’t play favorites in the hassle it presents. Major firms and small companies suffer precisely the same ordeal. Undoubtedly even this equal hassle greatly impedes imports and is one of the reasons for the high cost of toys, remote controls and computers in Israel.

In practice, the bureaucratic ordeal not only boosts the cost the consumer pays but also impedes the range of electronic devices sold here. Israel is a signatory to an international treaty that changed the frequencies allocated to electronics used for entertainment, in an effort to free up frequencies for the digital television age. As a result of the treaty, frequencies for entertainment devices around the world were changed and newly produced products have been adapted to the new standard.

But Israel, despite being a treaty signatory, has not freed up the necessary frequencies because they are reserved for the army. (Importers say the army isn’t using the frequencies but is still not volunteering to free them up for civilian use).

As a result of the situation, importers are forced to buy outmoded electronics for the Israeli market from lower-quality manufacturers in the Far East, since the more advanced devices cannot be used here. But the importers admit that that is only purportedly the situation. In practice, they say, the more advanced products are simply being smuggled into the country while firms going through the process of obtaining import permits are stuck with antiquated goods. The Communications Ministry, they argue, could have pressure the army to release the frequencies, but for the time being, the ministry hasn’t lifted a finger, they claim.

There is no disagreement among importers that the ministry spectrum division is not functioning properly and that it takes an average of 35 to 60 days to get an import permit, even for the simplest device with very short-range transmission capacity that couldn’t possibly interfere with the military or with airplane traffic. And even in the face of military sensitivities, there is no doubt that in an era in which wireless technology controls everything, the required import approval of every device cannot continue.

The Federation of Chambers of Commerce is calling for the necessary reforms to be undertaken whereby the Communications Ministry would set the frequencies that imported devices can use and make do with a declaration by the importers that they will comply. Then enforcement would be carried out by inspecting what the stores are selling to verify the reliability of the importers declarations.

The importers aren’t even dreaming that such a reform, which is already in place in Europe, would be implemented here. The importers are prepared to suffice with much more modest demands: the use of email contact with the ministry and linking the ministry to the computerized import database of the customs service. Those alone would improve importers’ lives.

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