Wataniya network goes live in West Bank despite frequency shortage

Wataniya Palestine has launched its new mobile network in the Palestine territories, despite the fact that the spectrum allocation agreed for the network has not been fully released by Israel.

Mohammad Mustafa, head of the Wataniya Palestine board, confirmed that the network is currently operating on a frequency range of 3.8 MHz; an agreement with the Palestinian authority last year obliged Israel to open 4.8 MHz.

Citing a promise made to the firm by Middle East peace envoy Tony Blair, Mr. Mustafa said “They will give us the additional 1 MHz as soon as possible.” A spokeswoman for Blair made no comment on this pledge.

The West Bank is inhabited by around 2.5 million Palestinians, but Israel controls the airwaves as the occupying power. Until now, Palestine Telecommunications Co (PalTel) has been the only network provider, with roughly 1.7 million subscribers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Operating under the Jawwal mobile brand, the incumbent is majority owned by Kuwaiti-based Zain.

Wataniya Palestine is owned by Qatar's Qtel (57%) and the Palestine Investment Fund (43 %), a holding company for Palestinian public assets. Wataniya’s new service was originally intended to launch on the 15th of October, but was severely delayed by the problems with releasing spectrum.

These issues at one point looked set to derail the project. Wataniya has invested some US$270 million on infrastructure in addition to a licence fee of US$140 million; in June, the firm demanded that this investment be returned unless the frequencies were opened, threatening to pull out if the agreed 4.8 MHz was not supplied.

However, despite the frequency shortage, Mr Mustafa announced that Wataniya Palestine would begin operations, providing network access to the 40,000 users. Registration was enabled through a promotional campaign launched a month ago.

Mashoor Abu Dakka, Palestinian Telecommunications Minister, commented: “The Israeli side didn’t commit to what it had promised. But we wanted the company to become a reality”, adding that he expected the remaining frequency would only be released after a “long-term battle”.

Tony Blair had urged Israel to release the frequencies in order to boost the Palestinian economy. The Wataniya network has the support of the World Bank and the US government as part of an effort to show solidarity towards Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas.

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