Friday, May 11, 2012

Summing up: iPhone 4/4s in Israel (Unlock)

No posts have gotten more hits than my 2 posts on using a U.S.-contract (AT&T etc.)  iPhone 4 in Israel. You may have found this posting by way of one of those two posts. I thought I'd revisit the issue in a streamlined way and sum up the current situation. (Everything applies to the iPhone 4s; my personal experience is with an AT&T iPhone 4). (Note: I've updated this entry as of 9/27/12 to incorporate new information with the release of the iPhone 5.)
(And as of 12/12/12, this color represents an even later update for iPhone5.)

Of course, you can pay your U.S.-based carrier prices and just use your phone in Israel. But those prices are outrageous. There is a cheaper way - go local. Get a local Israeli phone number and pay significantly cheaper local rates.

My proposed solution works only if you own a GSM-based iPhone 4. In other words, Verizon iPhone 4 users can stop reading right now. Update: but many sites report that Verizon has issued their new iPhone 5 (which has a GSM slot) with the GSM unlocked. Thus, for world travelers the Verizon iPhone 5 may be the easiest and most cost-effective solution. However, some online news sites suggest that Verizon may switch the unlocked state off in some future iOS software update (this happened before with other carriers) - so be warned! In the meantime, Verizon has announced it will unlock the SIM on the 4S upon request.

What you need to do is unlock your phone from your current carrier to turn it into an unlocked (sometimes: "universal") iPhone 4. All this means is that your device (which has a unique identifier) is no longer locked into your U.S. carrier's system, and can be universally used with any GSM-based network in the world. Then, when you get to Israel, purchase a Pay-As-You-Go (PAYG) microSIM GSM card with minutes (and even PAYG 3G data schemes are available).  
Turn your phone off. Pop out your U.S. carrier microSIM card and put in the Israeli card. Turn your phone back on. You now are on a native domestic network, with your own Israeli number. If you set things up correctly, you can even have English language prompts when connecting with network services. I have experience with the Israeli phone carrier Orange, but there are other carriers such as Cellcom. The Orange PAYG card is marketed as "big talk" (all lower case; here is the link to the Hebrew page.).
Update: the iPhone 5 uses a new GSM SIM card format dubbed the nanoSIM. Israeli carrier Cellcom is reportedly selling the nanoSIM already (for 99 NIS) as Israelis have already started showing up at Ben Gurion airport with brand new unlocked iPhone 5s. I do not know yet if the other major carrier Orange Israel makes its PAYG chip in the nanoSIM format. Remember, the iPhone 5 is not yet officially available to the Israeli market. There is already information that a cutting tool exists for turning a microSIM into a nanoSIM, and while there is a slight reduction in the thickness of the nanoSIM card, users report that the slightly thicker cut-down microSIM will work in an iPhone 5. But be warned!
So the key for this simple solution is to possess an unlocked iPhone 4. You have 3 options for getting an unlocked iPhone:

1. Buy an unlocked iPhone
Apple has been selling unlocked iPhone 4 and 4s devices since late 2010. They are very expensive, insofar as they are sold without the carrier subsidy that comes with a contract. Prices as of today start at $649 for a 4s 16GB (an 8GB 4 goes for $549). Update: Similar prices for an unlocked iPhone 5: $649 for the 16GB; $749 for the 32 GB; and $849 for the 64GB.

There is also a grey-market on eBay, but the savings of $50 or so might not be worth the trouble.

(Or, if you are willing to take a step in the direction of an Android-based phone, Google has started selling their "lead" device, the Galaxy Nexus, for $349 unlocked. But that is a different matter completely.)

If you already own an iPhone 4 or 4s, there remain 2 options:

2. Have your off-contract iPhone 4 unlocked by your U.S. carrier
If you are lucky enough to have an AT&T iPhone 4 which is currently beyond the initial 2-year contact (congrats! you own the phone and have paid the same high price for your device, only you've spread out the extra $400 over 24 months, and paid a little extra to boot), you can request that AT&T unlock your phone. They will do so. This program began in early April, 2012. Check here for the procedure. Update: if you are buying an iPhone 5 and are already the owner of an iPhone 4, AT&T will permit an unlock of your older iPhone 4. After AT&T sends you the acknowledgement, all it takes is a backup and restore via iTunes of your current iPhone 4. Make sure you do this before you activate your new iPhone 5.

3. Do it yourself
If you can't go either of these routes (you own an iPhone 4 or 4s still under contract), there remains a number of software "hacks" (aka "jailbreak") which can turn your device into an unlocked state.  If you aren't tech savvy, this third route might prove to be too daunting. But it can be done.

(12/12/12 Update: there is another way for the AT&T iPhone5 - find a service that will unlock your phone through adjusting your locked status on the Apple database. Search for the term "IMEI Unlock" - and make sure you use a reliable, authenticated service like Applenberry - but be warned: these are not free.)

Be warned! These are software solutions, and can be wiped out if you refresh or upgrade your phone to some newer iOS version number. There is a small tug-of-war going on between Apple and the hackers who creatively come up with these solutions. If you have version envy, and feel you must always upgrade your phone to the latest and greatest, you have to resist that temptation. Sometimes, Apple will release an upgrade of the iOS for the sole purpose of "closing" an opening in the system architecture utilized by the hackers. Also, as part of maintaining control over their product, Apple says that you void the warranty if you do any of these alterations. You'll have to decide if it is worth the tradeoff of the Apple or carrier warranty that comes in exchange for this increased functionality. Millions of iPhone users (but still only a small percentage) have performed these various software alterations successfully. But if your phone goes haywire at some point in the future, you might well be out of luck with Apple.

The methods are different depending on whether you have an iPhone 4 or 4s, and what version of iOS you are currently running. You may find your version number under Settings --> General --> About --> Version.

I can't cover every variation - 4 or 4s, and the numerous iOS versions (and then there is one more issue: the baseband version of your phone). I can recommend that if you've gotten this far, take a look at my prior post, which gets into the technicalities, but is a little outdated. It isn't hard to find reliable information for your phone model or iOS/baseband combo. And there will be circumstances where you are simply out-of-luck: there are certain circumstances (let's say you just bought a new iPhone 4s under U.S.-contract with the latest iOS pre-installed) where the hackers haven't yet caught up to the latest Apple software release.

I'd also recommend staying away from for-fee websites that promise you a remote unlock service. 

Me? I'm right now running iOS 5.0.1 on my iPhone 4; technically that puts me 2 iterations behind the latest released iOS 5.1.1. I'm not suffering because of it. I've used my software-unlocked iPhone 4 in Israel using an Orange number, even with a 3G data plan. Previously, I used my iPhone 3G in Israel and the UK. It can be done.

Update: Me? I just upgraded my iPhone 4 to iOS 6.0 with the official AT&T/Apple unlock. No more jailbreaking for me (at least not for unlocking). My subsidized iPhone 5 arrives in a week arrived, so when I travel I'll just use my unlocked iPhone 4. (Update 12/12/12: I have verified that I have unlocked my AT&T iPhone5)

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Israel: While you were sleeping...

Exactly a week ago, I wrote a blog entry entitled "New Elections in Israel?" (note the question mark) which began with the line: "Nothing is a certainty in Israeli politics..." and then surveyed the skyline in anticipation of a September election. I am not claiming any prognosticative brilliance, but I will say I hedged my bets sufficiently to cover the stunning political turn of events which transpired at 2 in the morning in Israel.

This is not the first time that the citizens of Israel went to bed certain of a political outcome, only to wake up to a new political order. Almost 16 years ago, in the general elections for the 14th Kenesset, the Israeli public "went to sleep with Peres, and woke up with Netanyahu." Back on May 29, 1996, the votes had been counted, the television projections had all been made, and it was clear that night that Labor's caretaker PM Shimon Peres had won a squeaker of an election. When the morning came, Binyamin Netanyahu had a 1% lead in the real vote count, and went on to become the 27th PM of Israel.

Bibi (now the 32nd PM) did it again. Monday night the Israeli public went to sleep as the Kenesset was actually voting on dissolving itself and scheduling new elections for September 4, and by Tuesday morning the elections had been cancelled, and a new national unity government of 94 impregnable seats had been created in the middle of the night. By bringing in the 28 chairs of the Kadima party (under the leadership of former CoS and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz), Netanyahu has apparently guaranteed his second term as PM will go the full distance, until October 2013, with a legislative mandate that cannot be undermined. This is no trivial accomplishment - there hasn't been a PM that has gone a full 4-year term in 30 years.

The cynicism of the late night political marriage has reignited the use of an interesting Israeli political slang term: kombina. It means something like a "machination" or "subterfuge" - a distasteful and unworthy combination. Mofaz had inherited 28 seats when he beat Tzipi Livni for the leadership of Kadima. The polls, as I noted, were all pointing to electoral disaster for Kadima in the autumn. Understandably so, given that Kadima had nothing to show for itself despite being the largest party in the current Kenesset. Mofaz, who not too long ago - Newt Gingrich-style - called Netanyahu a "liar" and vowed on Facebook to never, ever sit in a coalition with Netanyahu, reached out to Netanyahu's people with a plan. In exchange for 17 certain months on the inside with 28 seats, Mofaz offered to give Bibi an undisputed national unity government. By proposing this kombina, Mofaz assured his relevance for 17 months, and quite likely put the last nail into the strange vanity-party created by Ariel Sharon known as Kadima.

So let's take a look at the new landscape. First - Iran. I have elsewhere contended that 2012 will not be the year that Israel attacks Iranian nuclear installations, and I stand by that prediction. For all those who speculated that snap elections were designed to prepare for an autumn attack, and for all those (me) who predicted that snap elections precluded the possibility of an autumn attack - well, we now all have to go back to the blackboard. What does a national unity government portend?

Some have argued that an impregnable national unity coalition means an attack is imminent. In the past, national unity governments in Israel have often served to provide the domestic stability required for bold military moves. How can any American President in an election year stand up against an Israeli Prime Minister brandishing 80% of the country's legislators in his pocket? By shoring up all domestic support in an absolutely unassailable majority, it is argued that the likelihood of a sooner-rather-than-later Israeli attack has increased dramatically in the last 24 hours.

I don't buy it. The closed inner cabinet which will someday vote on an attack has just been increased by one seat. Sitting around Netanyahu are now 3 Chiefs of Staff (the current Ganz, and the 2 formers: Barak and Mofaz). Ganz has publicly expressed his hesitancy, and Mofaz (who has a history of changing positions) talks of a 2-year window for making the decision. Only one of the generals, Barak, talks of a 6-9 month window. If anything, the inclusion of Mofaz makes an attack even less likely this year. Mofaz is an interesting character: Iranian born, he served as lieutenant to Yoni Netanyahu on the heroic 1976 Entebbe raid that resulted in Yoni's tragic death, he served as CoS during brother Binyamin Netanyahu's first stint as PM, and was selected by Ariel Sharon to be Defense Minister. He is tough on security, and unrepentantly changes his political colors and his counsel as the situation dictates. So there is simply no way to predict what he will now counsel inside the inner cabinet forum. It seems to me that Mofaz's inclusion means more indecision, not less.

As to the Palestinians: here I think the inclusion of Kadima points to a possible softening of Israel's stance regarding Israel-Palestine. Back in 2009, when Netanyahu was forming the current government, he had a choice: create a right-center coalition with Kadima (the largest party) or a hard right coalition (with a range of right and religious parties). Netanyahu chose the latter, and then dug in his heels against the Obama administration. With Kadima now in, as well as all the right and religious parties, there is some new room to maneuver on Palestine. I don't hold out much hope for this scenario, because as long as the rightist and religious parties stay put, nothing can really change. But in Israeli politics, nothing lasts forever.

There are a variety of deadlines built into this kombina which present political opportunities. By July 31, the new government is obliged to come up with a replacement for the Tal Law, which deals with the question of the (non-) induction of ultra-Orthodox men into military or national service. This is a very divisive domestic issue, which could unravel today's political victory. By the end of the year, the coalition is similarly obliged to come up with new protocols for the streamlining of governmental business, also a sticky wicket. Upon the arrival of these built-in deadlines, any of the coalition members, but particularly Kadima, could dissolve the agreement. Imagine for a moment Mofaz coming out before the cameras: "I tried. But Bibi is a liar, as I always contended. I walk away and wash my hands of the entire deal." And that would be that.

Bottom line: Netanyahu, facing the likelihood of an electoral victory which would have strengthened his position for 2-3 years, chose instead a kombina which likely guarantees 17 months of unimpeded leadership, and then a gigantic question mark thereafter. Mofaz, facing electoral disaster, chose instead 17 months of being on the inside, in exchange for an even bigger question mark thereafter. Quite a roll of the dice, which could come back to bite the two of them in late 2013.

There is much more to report: what does this mean for Yair Lapid and Shelly Yachimovich, who now have to wait 17 long months before they can test their messages with the Israeli public; what happens to rambunctious Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and the religious parties, who until now were the pedestals of the former government coalition; what of the social justice movement and the Israeli economy; and what of former Kadima leader Tzipi Livni (now vindicated or permanently humiliated)? For now, dear readers, we will have to wait, because this blog is already too long.

In the meantime, sweet dreams.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

New Elections in Israel?

Nothing is a certainty in Israeli politics, but it looks like on this coming Sunday PM Binyamin Netanyahu is going to call for "early" elections to take place sometime in September or October 2012. Let's assume the rumors and leaks swirling through the Israeli media are accurate, and take a look at the landscape as a summer election campaign approaches.

Most important: one has to factor in a domestic election campaign regarding speculation concerning a possible Israeli strike on Iran anytime this year. It is hard to imagine that such a strike would be initiated during an election cycle. Were Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak to order a strike during the summer, it would be the equivalent of a mega-"October surprise" and would be an impossible shock to the system, necessitating a suspension of the election for a time. So I think it is fair to draw a simple conclusion: elections in the fall means no Israeli airstrike on Iran for the remainder of 2012.

The standard narrative going into an election cycle is clear: Netanyahu believes that a quick snap election will help solidify his party the Likud. The Israeli center and left are in disarray. All the polls, which are a snapshot of the Israeli electorate's mood as of the moment, suggest that Netanyahu and Likud will do just fine, and will be able to assemble another right-leaning government in time to face either an Obama or (better yet, from Netanyahu's view) Romney White House. The tough decisions of a new budget will be better served by a new coalition agreement. Thus, elections.

Here are the facts: Russians will vote for Russians. Religious Jews will vote for religious parties. That takes care of roughly a third of the Israeli electorate. On domestic and budgetary issues, these two camps are at loggerheads -- in fact the move to early elections has something to do with the incompatibility of these two political camps. Any new coalition will have to choose between one or the other, or else finesse a way to include both. It won't be the Israeli-Palestinian strife or the Iran problem that will matter to these two camps.

Two thirds of the Israeli electorate then divides between a roughly steady 40% supporting Likud and its satellite parties, a steady 40% supporting Labor, or other centrist-left factions, and a typically 20% of  undecided voters who might break one way or the other depending on the vagaries of the day. If that undecided middle breaks in the direction of an anti-Netanyahu political figure, there is a chance of unseating Bibi. Still, all this points to a likely third primeministership for Netanyahu. Nevertheless, there are some things we all should be looking for in the coming months which could upset this scenario.

There is good reason to believe that the summer of 2012 will witness another round of social justice protests in Tel Aviv, spreading to other cities. Very little has changed in the structure of the Israeli economy between the summer of 2011 and today, and many of the issues raised by last summer's #j14 protests (income inequality, housing shortages, and a stifling cost of living) are still of vital concern to Israeli citizens. If the social protest movement is able to reignite the base in the summer of 2012, it will serve as a platform for criticism of the current government, and will have a potential wildcard effect on the vote. Last year's protests, begun in mid-July, peaked in late August and early September. The party best positioned to take advantage of this protest sentiment is Labor, whose current leader MK Shelly Yachimovich has made the economy and social justice the centerpiece of Labor's message.

Kadima, the artificial vanity party creation of Ariel Sharon which drew supporters back in 2005 from both Labor and Likud (and in fact won the largest block of votes in the last round of elections, held in 2009) is likely not going to be as much a factor in the 2012 elections. I expect a large wave of public and private defections from Shaul Mofaz's Kadima to Likud and to Labor. The new face in Israeli politics is former television news reader Yair Lapid, who has only stumbled in the months since he announced his turn to politics. I do not expect great things from Lapid.

One positive from all the maneuvering and defections of the last 4 years will be the end of Ehud Barak. His vanity party Independence (Atzma'ut) will simply disappear, and bring to an end (at least for now) the strange career of Barak.

To sum up: the deck is stacked in Netanyahu's favor, but there are some wildcard factors that might unexpectedly produce a change. I'm looking for Labor and Yachimovich to improve, and Mofaz and Kadima to falter. It's always possible some new charismatic figure might emerge in the coming months, but I judge that an unlikely development. I'll keep an eye on this campaign (if it emerges), and report back to all (4) of you.