Likud-UTJ deal includes reversal on plan to phase out 2G, 3G networks — report

The coalition agreement between the incoming ruling party Likud and United Torah Judaism reportedly includes a clause that will see Israel reverse course on a plan to gradually phase out 2G and 3G cellular networks, in a bid to protect the availability of so-called kosher phone lines that run on these older connectivity systems.

Many members of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox communities use kosher phones — devices stripped of social media, texting, and most other apps — on the advice of rabbis, in a bid to protect themselves from the ostensible vices of modern technology.

Since these devices are also usually older, they support operability on technologies that are becoming outdated.

According to the plan announced last year to sunset 2G and 3G networks, Israel began prohibiting the commercial import of mobile devices that run on these older technologies, starting in January.

Next month, according to the plan, cellular network operators were to stop connecting new mobile devices to 2G and 3G networks, but would still be required to provide services to existing customers on these networks until the end of 2025, when a total shutdown of these networks was expected.

The idea, according to the Communications Ministry, was to free up scarce cellular frequencies in favor of more advanced technologies based on 5G networks, touted as promising an exponential leap in the amount and speed of wireless data delivery and a step to unlocking new opportunities for the Israeli economy.

“Shutting down old networks will free up frequencies and enable a technological leap forward, upgrading the quality of cellular services, and promoting Israeli industry and the economy,” the director-general of the Communications Ministry said at the time.

United Torah Judaism chairman Yitzchak Goldknopf and MKs Ya’akov Tessler and Meir Porush arrive for a court hearing on a petition against the kosher cell phone reform, at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, July 28, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Communications Ministry plans to reform Israel’s mobile phones and cellular communications sector have been unpopular with ultra-Orthodox parties and their communities. The approval of a plan this spring that directed mobile phone companies to allow full number mobility on kosher lines drew fierce opposition by many ultra-Orthodox rabbis.

Channel 12 reported Monday that, as part of the agreement, Likud agreed to UTJ’s demand to nix the plan to shut down 2G and 3G networks and leave them operational, mainly to benefit ultra-Orthodox mobile phone customers.

According to the report, an unnamed Communications Ministry official said the move would cost the Israeli public millions and would set the country back years. The official explained that the shutdown of 2G-3G networks would be required to allow for newer technology upgrades.

Devices that run on the older networks are significantly cheaper with an average cost of NIS 89 ($25) compared to devices that run on 4G networks, with a price tag of over NIS 500 ($142), according to Channel 12 market research.

Outgoing Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel told 103FM radio on Monday that “whoever wrote that clause [in the coalition deal] must have been drunk.”

Hendel, who pushed for the outgoing government’s plan, said the reported new move “is the biggest harm being done in the coalition agreements — the Haredi politician who probably signed it has no clue about infrastructure.”

Ultra-Orthodox politicians were furious at Hendel’s efforts throughout his tenure in the Communications Ministry, which they saw as deliberately aimed at subverting the wishes of their community.

Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel in Modi’in, December 5, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Hendel also oversaw the move to allow phone number mobility for kosher phones, leading UTJ MK Moshe Gafni to label him a “rude dictator” who seeks to “impose his opinion” on an uninterested public.

Mobility enables users to maintain their original phone numbers even if they transfer to a new service provider and start using a smartphone — something strongly opposed by many rabbinic authorities.

The battle over the growing usage of smartphones and the internet in the Haredi world is one of the fiercest struggles within the community.

In October, a cellphone store in the ultra-Orthodox Geula neighborhood of Jerusalem which sold both kosher and regular smartphones was set ablaze. A man from Beit Shemesh was arrested on suspicion of arson and later indicted for the crime.

The man’s arrest sparked a violent protest in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood, which led to a woman passing by being seriously wounded after she was hit by a dumpster set ablaze that had been shoved by protesters.

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