Israel to Invest Millions in Improving Settlements' Cellular Reception Despite IDF Opposition

Plan was hatched after emergency teams were late to arrive at scene of terrorist attack due to poor reception.

Amitai Ziv
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Cellular towers at Beit El in the West Bank.
Cellular towers at Beit El in the West Bank. Credit: Emil Salman
Amitai Ziv

The Communications Ministry is advancing a 40-million-shekel ($10.6 million) plan to improve cellular reception in the West Bank, but the army opposes it, saying it does not need civilian networks to improve its reception in the territories.

The state plans to build some 40 towers and connect them to the cellular network. The cabinet decided on the project late last year, after the October 1 attack in which a couple were murdered between the settlements of Elon Moreh and Itamar in the northern West Bank.

At the time there was no cellular reception in the area, so emergency teams were late to the scene, and it was harder for them to communicate once they arrived. The same problems occurred at an intersection near Hebron the following January.

Once the towers are up, the state will let the cellular companies pay a reduced leasing fee to install their antennae. Industry experts estimate the cost at about 1 million shekels per tower.

The plan is thought to be an order by the diplomatic-security cabinet, but the director general of the Communications Ministry, Shlomo Filber, has taken charge of the issue. Elhanan Shapira, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s adviser in the Communications Ministry, has been working with Filber. Shapira is responsible for coordinating the project with the National Security Council.

Filber has been working on the plan since the beginning of the year. He asked the Finance Ministry for a budget for the project; the treasury then asked for a comment by the army, which said there was no operational need.

Industry experts say the army probably fears that if boosting reception is defined as an operational need, it will be forced to bear the costs.

The treasury, meanwhile, has said that if there is a need to improve civilian reception in the West Bank, the state should also improve coverage on access roads to small villages in the Galilee.

The Justice Ministry has thus been asked if it is possible to discriminate between West Bank settlements and communities in Israel proper, given the lack of a security argument.

According to their licenses, the cellular companies must provide full cellular coverage, but the Communications Ministry may not penalize the firms in areas not defined as sovereign Israeli territory.

The state can stipulate the coverage it demands of the companies, but the state has never funded the deployment of cellular towers. The firms put them up based economic considerations and the needs of their customers.

Also, the Communication Ministry’s plan does not yet determine who would pay for maintenance of the towers. It also does not provide a model for how to fix a broken tower or antenna, and has yet to provide a list of sites that most urgently need better reception.

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