Nostalgia Sunday – The day Cellcom launched

Cellcom_Jpost_Dec_28_1994We stayed up till past midnight last week to witness the first launching of iPhone in Israel . And, like the proverbial lead balloon that was Y2K, we waited… and waited… and nothing happened.

Apple importer iDigital put a good amount of effort into creating a special website with a slick-looking countdown clock and promises of streaming video broadcasts live from their store in the Dizengoff Center. But the Twitter feeds from those standing on line should have tipped us off. “There’s more photographers here than customers,” one person Tweeted. “There’s only about 40-50 people standing in line,” posted another. The online video only confirmed their reports: an airy atmosphere with plenty of room to move around. No pushing. No shoving. No thundering hordes.

Let me just state for the record (although everyone knows) that the main reason why the iPhone launch failed to generate any excitement was that anyone in this country who wants an iPhone already has one. This is a country of gear-heads and gadget freaks. Little obstacles like local cellular companies not providing service or support did not stop anyone over the past two years from buying the coveted device abroad and having it hacked, cracked and operational within hours of landing at Ben Gurion Airport.

How things have changed from the days when it took years of being on a waiting list before being assigned a landline by the state-run Israel Telephone Company! The days when you had to rely on being in your neighbors’ good graces if you wanted to make or receive a phone call. The days when, if you were lucky enough to inherit a line, you had to bring the phone company your grandmother’s death certificate and pay hundreds of lira in installation fees just to keep an already-installed line.

The creation of semi-privatized phone company Bezeq in 1985 did little to change the situation, except that phone company clerks were now free to tell any customer complaining about their inefficiency, “We are Bezeq. We are efficient now.”

Phew! That little trip down memory lane just raised my blood pressure a good 10 points. And not just mine but the rest of the population who, enterprising as always, figured out a way to bypass the phone company by leapfrogging technology. Already comfortable with walkie-talkies from their army service, by the mid-1980s, Israelis executives were happy to pay exorbitant sums to Pele-phone for the use of heavy-as-a-brick Motorola cell phones. More accurately put, they were happy to have their employers pay.

And then, in 1994, the Ministry of Communications announced it would license a second cellular phone company, thus introducing competition into the field and hopefully lowering prices. On December 28, 1994, the day that Cellcom opened its store in the Dizengoff Center – yes, the very same – I was sent, as a junior business reporter for the Jerusalem Post, to cover the event.

At 9:00am, people were already crowding the entrance. Cellcom had assigned a bevy of pretty girls to hand out red roses to the crowd. Had they done any realistic market research, they would have assigned a battery of security guards armed with clubs and mace. Because every small businessman, man-with-a-van, man-with-a-plan — not to mention pimp, drug dealer and any other person in need of a phone device you can use while running – showed up. And they were not in the mood for flowers. Thinking that I was handing out numbers to stand in line, a few gentlemen pushed me into a corner and tore my notebook out of my hands, then threw it back in disgust when they realized I wasn’t. Although service at that point was limited only to Tel Aviv, Cellcom sold out every device in a matter of hours.

Now that was a launch. The air was electric because it was a true revolution in communications in a budding free market economy, plus you might have gotten knifed if you weren’t careful. It was great. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

With the advent of relatively cheap cell phone service, the public even forgave Cellcom a few weeks later when there was a product recall and thousands of devices had to have a chip replaced. Cellcom’s very savvy PR man Nissan Balaban advised the company not to cover-up the problem but to face it head on. This time they got their demographic right: a massive repair event was held at the Ramat Gan soccer stadium, there was food and drink, everyone’s phone was fixed and no one got hurt.

Today there are two cell phones for every one Israeli, three and a half cellular phone service providers, and no one ever need knock on the neighbors’ door to make a phone call. Public phones are almost non-existent. So pity not the poor iPhone importer – eventually they’ll lower their (over)price to a competitive one and we’ll have three cell phone devices for everyone.

For more information, there is a nice article in Wikipedia about the history of Communications in Israel.

Nostalgia Sunday – Asimonim

israel_telephone_token_backNostalgia is defined as “longing for something past” and the asimon, or Israeli telephone token, was a beautiful object for which I’m quite nostalgic. Not only did asimonim have a practical function — to make calls from public phones — they were attractively decorated with the image of a phone dial and had a hole in the middle, so you could string them on a leather thong to wear around your neck. Or, as I did, impaled on a large safety pin and hooked onto a belt loop. All very punk.

And here’s something I’m not at all nostalgic for: scrounging around desperately for an asimon, either because you miscalculated the length of your call, or — in most cases — because the public phone decided to eat your last precious token. This after having waited in line for 45 minutes to make the call.

bezeq-public-phone

I thought perhaps it was just me imagining conspiracy theories but it turns out that there actually was a national shortage of telephone tokens! This was between 1973 and the post-Yom Kippur War era, when asimon consumption shot way up, and 1981, when the Ministry of Communications found a way to manufacture asimonim locally instead of farming out the work to our friends at Vereinigte Deutsche Metallwerke AG (VDM). (Rumor had long had it that the arrangement with VDM was part of a reparations deal closed between the Israeli and German governments. Now, there’s a conspiracy theory to mull over).

In any case, by the time 1984 rolled around and the Ministry of Communications privatized Bezeq, there were asimonim aplenty and the black market in phone tokens (yes, there was one) had all but shut down. On the other hand, there was a wave of phone box break-ins. To stop the madness, Bezeq introduced the phone card in 1990, and again, war gave the new technology an unexpected boost in 1991 when the first Gulf War created new demand for international phone calls — mostly placed by those of us in sealed rooms trying to find out from relatives and friends abroad what CNN was reporting and which way the SCUDS were heading.

israel_telephone_token_2_types_front

According to an excellent online article (in Hebrew) by Moshe Lipner, “Israel’s Telephone Tokens“, at their peak, there were 13,000 token telephone boxes around Israel. By 1999, these had been replaced by 22,000 Telecard phone boxes. These can still be found, as can phone cards, but their presence has declined considerably with the massive public switchover to cell phone technology — and who can blame the public for wresting itself out from under Bezeq’s monolithic thumb?

Meanwhile the modest little asimon has become a collector’s item on Ebay and an objet d’art. Given my penchant for wearing asimonim, I think I may need to get a pair of these:
israel_telephone_token_cufflinks

 

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