Remarks on the Impact of the 3G agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority

Ambassador Daniel A. Sepulveda
Deputy Assistant Secretary and U.S. Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy, Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs
Executive Club Ramallah
Ramallah, Palestinian Territories
February 3, 2016

Thank you. I am honored to come to Ramallah and speak to you about our work in the area of technology, telecommunications, and the Internet and why we are so passionate about that work. This is my first visit to Ramallah and I am thrilled to be here.

I was actually inspired to enter public service after taking a course on Israeli-Palestinian issues while at Emory University when I was young. My professor made plain that the issues on the ground are complex, the history is long, and passions run high. But the reason that class and professor pushed me to service is that he conveyed the idea that trying to solve hard, public challenges is an honorable and useful way to spend one’s life. To this day, when anyone speaks about how special this land is to them, they always find in me a listener eager to hear their stories and perspective, regardless of their position.

President Obama and Secretary Kerry have both made this region and the future of the people who live here – Israeli and Palestinian alike -- a high priority and there is good reason for that. First and foremost, the American and Palestinian bonds are strong.

Our multi-dimensional relationships – government-to-government, business-to-business, and people-to-people – are productive and rooted in mutual respect. We are attached in personal ways as well as through science, culture, and economics. We want you to succeed, to live in peace, and to enjoy prosperity. We want that for everyone in the region.

I am here to discuss what I believe is a potentially historic agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority on advanced mobile communications. I think it shines a small but significant ray of hope and sets an example for a path forward in other areas of potential cooperation. But the degree to which the agreement will be judged as historic will depend on its full implementation. We are seeing good progress in that direction. We thank all parties for their efforts, and we hope there will be no pause on the path to its completion.

Establishing potential milestones for the ongoing assessment of progress can itself hasten progress toward voluntary agreements on the basis of the conditions the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority established last year. This will not be easy or simple. All sides will have to appreciate each others efforts and work hard to meet in the middle.

On November 19, 2015, Israel and the Palestinian Authority signed a “Principles Agreement” to enable deployment of a 3G mobile network in the West Bank. I worked with both parties as they negotiated this agreement and I am committed to working with you to guarantee its implementation in 2016.

This agreement presents a great opportunity to create a new professional partnership to provide 3G technologies where both Israelis and Palestinians can greatly benefit now and long into the future for economic development for the region. I am convinced that its implementation will change lives for the better and serve as a model of cooperation toward a common goal.

Shared prosperity and the potential for hope in a future with more opportunity than the past depends on all our children being able to access and use the global communications platform. More than three billion people and billions more devices are connected to the Internet today. That connectivity is revolutionizing how we live, work, and govern ourselves.

As a matter of economic and social justice, the global Internet helps bridge the gap between talent and opportunity. In much of the world, men and women in rural communities are now able to receive microloans to start a small business using only their smartphones.

There are applications for women to track their health and the health of their baby while they are pregnant and for men and women to be able to identify the location of clean water.

Mobile technology drives businesses, provides opportunities for younger generations to thrive, and facilitates political debate. According to data from GSMA 2015 Mobile Technology report, 92% of internet users across the Middle East went online via mobile phone. Just 73% did so via a desktop or laptop computer.

The people living in the West Bank and Gaza must have access to those services in order to shape their own future. And they should be able to access those networks from operators that live, work, and invest in the communities they serve.

Young people are growing up in a world where social media, mobile technology and online communities are fundamental to the way that they communicate, learn and develop. In recent years the speed, flexibility and affordability of rapidly evolving digital technology has slowly helped close the digital divide between the haves and have-nots and enabled millions of young people in developing countries to join the digital world.

Mobile phones are also proving effective tools in engaging and mobilizing children and young people to engage in economic, social and political spheres.

Exclusive and shared frequencies, where operators have continuous, unencumbered connectivity with their users, will lead to broadband technology and unleash important opportunities for Palestinians and the Palestinian Authority, which seeks to set up an e-governance system, a critical step for sustainable development.

Broadband can also enhance provision of education, health and government services by reducing delivery costs and improving service availability.

Mobile broadband can be used to provide healthcare services in rural areas. It can connect patients in remote areas with health workers in big cities to receive free advice 24 hours a day. It is estimated that the use of telemedicine delivered by broadband could achieve cost savings of between 10% and 20%, the GSMA 2015 report says. And in the West Bank, potentially reduce dependence on Israeli medical services.

Availability of 3G mobile services can enhance the scope of medical applications. In this way, healthcare services can be expanded to visual tele-monitoring and emergency room consultations.

The internet can broaden the scope of education by enhancing remote communications and delivery of teaching material enabling students in rural areas with scarce educational resources to access online learning materials via mobile phones or laptops outside the classroom.

It can improve the quality of education by expanding the range of learning opportunities through online services and applications, such as email, discussion boards, live webcasts, podcasts, blogs and customized course management platforms: Blackboard, Moodle and Sakai.

Students can communicate and interact with peer students and educators in real-time using mobile technology and provides greater flexibility in student learning.

These technologies can give a student in the West Bank and the ability to communicate with a fellow student in Gaza, overcoming barriers to travel between these two areas.

By the same token, these technologies give students the ability to communicate with each other all over the world, enhancing their global outlook that transcends borders and walls.

The advance technology can also provide consumers with better quality of voice services due to upgraded mobile networks to provide high-speed internet on the go.

The arrival of broadband will bring all the benefits of smartphones to the consumers. As well, mobile phone users can feel more empowered while using their smartphones with faster streaming, video calls and other facilities that are part and parcel of today’s smartphones.

But it is not just in the interest of the people living in the West Bank that they acquire access to reliable 3G services, the economic prosperity and improved quality of life that will ensue is in all of our interest. The arrival of 3G and other technologies will present opportunities for Palestinian and Israeli entrepreneurs alike. It will help in developing telecommunications and technological fields as well as enable improvements in education, tourism, health and industry.

There are about 300 million Arabic speakers in the Middle East. For Palestinians, economic prospects will rise with the ability to access the large Arabic speaking market in the world with new services and new connections riding over a modern network.

There are estimates that the introduction of 3G will bring from $50 million to $100 million into the Palestinian economy, creating opportunity and a space for hope. The Palestinian tech sector accounts for at least 5.6% of the $13 billion Palestinian GDP, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.

The estimated 30 start-ups operating here have gained acceptance among Palestinians only in the past few years.

All of this can be built on and strengthened but it depends on moving forward together—Israelis and Palestinians—to implement spectrum sharing according to the principles specified in the agreement and unleash new, modern wireless services. It was agreed that there would be, among other things:

1) No payments for the assignment of the Shared Frequencies or commercial tradeoffs required from Palestinian to Israeli operators;

2) Frequencies will be shared in way that provides uninterrupted service to customers across and throughout the West Bank;

And 3) entry approval of equipment and materials for building Palestinian communications networks will be made efficiently and in good faith.

The fulfillment of these commitments, their durability and sustainability, will require public leadership and private commitments. My conversations this week lead me to believe that leadership and commitment is there.

The geography and proximity of customers that Israeli and Palestinian operators have to serve in the West Bank as they travel within and across the region requires an assessment of existing spectrum license holdings, the needs of operators, and what is technically feasible and necessary for the operation of Palestinian based advance mobile networks on exclusive and shared spectrum in the territory.

We encourage a sense of urgency in making sure a solution emerges consistent with the underlying agreement. It is up to the public authorities to make sure this happens this year.

Today, startups in Ramallah that want to create smartphone apps often have a hard time finding developers - perhaps because people who haven’t been exposed to 3G yet, don’t understand the potential.

I believe that once people have 3G in their hands, you’ll see a lot more apps being developed.

I recall reading a story a few months ago of a young man named Ahmed Zaytoun who was born and raised in Ramallah. The story told that at least twice a week, Mr. Zaytoun needed to drive from his Ramallah apartment to the Palestinian village of Hizma to visit family. According to the story, to get there, he has to pass through the Qalandiya checkpoint, from what I understand one of the biggest checkpoints in the West Bank, which is notorious for traffic.

The story reported that sometimes people have to wait hours to get through the check point. Other times, for security reasons, checkpoints are shut down completely. It seems very unpredictable.

So he had an idea: develop an app to tell people if the checkpoint is open, and if so, how long the wait is to get through. He built the app and named it “Qalandiya.” It became available in the Apple App Store in November 2015, and at the time was getting hundreds of downloads right away. Though Qalandiya can work on 2G, it’s painfully slow.

Tech startups from Jerusalem and Gaza abound here and are chomping at the bit to get going. The app Maktabi—called the “Palestinian Airbnb for offices”—solves a unique challenge in Gaza.

Freelancers and small teams working in Gaza’s growing outsourcing sector can rent offices, meeting rooms, and co-working spaces to grow their businesses. Twenty five year-old Mariam Abultewi started the ride-sharing app Wasselni, which pairs drivers and passengers in some of the most remote areas of the Gaza Strip. The U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem sent her to the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, where she was recognized as a leading Arab innovator. Startups in the West Bank are using crowdfunding to attract investment for innovative projects such as the BoldKnot—a top-up battery pack for smartphones and solar energy projects for hospitals in the Gaza Strip.

The examples are endless, but you get the point. I know. Mobile communications and the Internet fuels innovation that can lead to improved efficiency and improved productivity in every sector of a developing economy. That can translate into jobs and hope and prosperity. But we have to lay down the wireless foundation of broadband access first.

The Internet has served us well as a platform to provide anyone connected to it with an opportunity to contribute to political, economic, and social discourse, and we believe that is a very good and important thing, worthy of preserving. It is in everyone’s interest to use modern technology and telecommunications to help bridge age old divides – divides in communications, in opportunity, and in prosperity. We can do it and we should do it.

Thank you. I appreciate your time and look forward to answering any questions you might have.