4G services launched in Israel after operators get temporary permission to use spectrum

The country's long-awaited 4G spectrum auction will go ahead later this year, but mobile companies can use the spectrum for now.
Written by Niv Lilien, Contributor on

After much anticipation, the Israeli Ministry of Communications last week approved the use of 4G LTE networks in Israel, allowing the country's mobile operators — including Pelephone and Orange — to start offering fourth-generation services to their customers.

According to the ministry's announcement, blocks of spectrum that will be auctioned off for 4G use are now being made available to operators to use on a temporary basis, with each company able to request two 5MHz blocks of spectrum.

Partner Communications, which operates the Orange brand in Israel, rival telco Pelephone have already done so and been allowed to use the spectrum in question. Partner has now moved its 4G services from test phase to commercially available — meaning their customers in Israel can get access to 4G services for the first time, at no extra cost. Pelephone expects to do the same any day now.

A few weeks ago, the Ministry of Communications (MOC) took the first steps towards starting the auction process for 4G-compatible spectrum. The bidding was originally supposed to begin in 2007, but has been repeatedly delayed.

In the auction, Israeli mobile operators will be able to bid on a total of 65MHz of spectrum in the 1800MHz band. The spectrum will be auctioned off in 5MHz blocks, each with a starting price of 10 million shekels.

Operators can submit requests for information about the auction until the beginning of August, and the ministry has until early September to answer them. Operators can then submit their proposals until 1 October, and a few weeks later, the MOC will announce which operators will go through to the final stage of the auction. Bidding proper will begin at the end of November or early December.

Bids for each spectrum block will be raised in 100,000 shekel increments; Partner and Cellcom will be able to acquire up to two blocks, while Pelephone and other smaller operators can buy up to four. It's expected Partner and Cellcom will also enter into 4G infrastructure sharing deals with smaller rivals — much like the one signed between Cellcom and the smallest of Israel's four main mobile companies, Golan, earlier this year.

With the bidding not expected to close until in 2015, the MOC is allowing operators to provisionally use the 4G spectrum until the results of the auction are confirmed.

Both Pelephone and Partner have already published details on their websites of how customers can sign up for the 4G services now on offer. While Partner has a detailed map of its current and expected future 4G coverage, Pelephone's information is focused on which devices support its network and how to buy them through the operator.

According to Partner's map, Orange's 4G coverage is better in central and southern Israel, and scarcer HaSharon and northern Israel. The company is aiming to complete its 4G network rollout before the end of the year.

The current generation of 4G networks typically offer download speeds in the region of 5Mbps to 20Mbps, depending on where in the world they're based. Many countries are already rolling out the next generation of LTE services, known as LTE-Advanced, which offers theoretical download speeds of up to 300Mbps.

Orange has given no figures on what 4G speeds users can expect today, but has said it expects to reach the 300Mbps level when it rolls out LTE-A in the future. Pelephone is also promising 300Mbps eventually, but is offering theoretical maximum download speeds of 150Mbps and uploads of 50Mbps currently.

Rival operator Cellcom, Israel's largest operator, has yet to launch a 4G network, but has said it plans to rollout LTE-A in the future.

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