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Talkative Israelis love their mobile phones


JERUSALEM -- Oren Most knew he had a hot product when the salesmen caught a little old lady hiring a blind man to butt his way to the front of the line.

She had paid the fellow $100 to buy her a mobile telephone, said Mr. Most.

She wasn't the most insistent customer. After Mr. Most's company, Cellcom, opened its stores for business in late December, unruly crowds clamored to buy the phones.

One impatient customer barged in and threatened to blow up the store with a grenade, said Mr. Most, vice president of marketing and sales.

"We couldn't take any risk. We sold him a phone, and the police took him away to jail," he said.

The would-be bomber's first call -- presumably to his lawyer -- on his new phone was cheap.

Cellcom claims to offer the cheapest air time for mobile telephones in the world, about 2 1/2 cents per minute.

That helped create a stampede of 70,000 new subscribers in Cellcom's first three months.

But it explains only part of Israel's mobile-phone craze.

This country is taking to mobile phones the way it would to bagels if good bagels ever came to Israel.

The phones are not new, but a sudden whiff of competition and consumerism has sent the market soaring -- even though the price for the telephones starts at about $500 each and goes above $1,500.

It has become common to see distracted people barking business deals into phones while wandering along the street.

And the tingle of a ringing phone in a restaurant sends a dozen diners digging through coats and handbags to see if the call is for them.

The grand dame of Israeli mobile phones, called Pelephone (in Hebrew it means Magic Phone) has been around for a decade.

It has rates eight times higher than Cellcom and a monthly fee where Cellcom has none.

But Pelephone has doubled the number of its subscribers in one year.

"Israelis like gadgets," said Paul Weissbach, assistant to the general manager for operations at Pelephone.

"And there is a certain amount of 'me-too.' If you have one, I want one, too."

"Sometimes you see people who you know don't have money, but they have a phone," said David Hidana, 25, a waiter who has seen the growing profusion of phones at his sidewalk cafe on Jerusalem's main pedestrian mall.

"It's for show."

There is a precedent for this behavior. In the 1980s, Israelis discovered videocassette recorders, and what seemed like the entire population bought them.

"The Japanese thought there were 40 million Israelis, we were buying so many of their VCRs," Mr. Most recalled.

"We're Israelis. We want everything," laughed Amos Luzon, 35, an insurance company owner, as he sat at a cafe with his mobile phone.

It rang insistently as he sipped a cappuccino.

"Having this phone saves me two hours of work," he said. "I use it 80 percent for work.

"Of course, when I talk to my wife, that's work, too."

And Israelis talk. A lot.

According to Mr. Weissbach, Americans use mobile phones an average of about 150 minutes a month.

The average Israeli use is almost four times that -- 560 minutes a month, he said.

"It's our nature," said Mr. Most.

That is great for the companies that sell air time. But it does bring some social concerns.

The Israeli army, for example, found soldiers carrying mobile phones on duty.

They made calls to order pizza while on patrol.

They called their girlfriends.

They called home with gripes about army life, and their mothers promptly called their sons' commanders to complain.

The army banned mobile phones from the front lines.

On the roads, the mobile phones have produced a crop of one-handed drivers, as users get behind the wheel and chat.

A law prohibits talking on hand-held mobile phones while driving. But there's no penalty, and that law goes ignored almost as often as the one banning honking for anything but an emergency.

The police sometimes do try to enforce a law that prohibits driving without two hands on the steering wheel.

That carries a $13 fine.

The police want to boost it to $85, but the Israeli parliament felt an increase to $45 was more prudent.

"Israelis speak with their hands. If they are saying something they don't like, they move their hands around a lot.

"That's dangerous in a car," said Udi Efrat, chief of the transportation division of the Israeli police.

"Israeli drivers are dangerous enough without phones," agreed Odeyn Bugayi, 24, who works in a health food store and often talks to her boss on his mobile phone.

"I've seen people on the highway driving zigzag. They're disconnected with the world," she said.

"They don't look at anything because they are talking on the phone."

Mr. Most's enthusiasm for his product is undimmed. He has answers to every problem.

Driving? Use an adapter that serves as a speaker-phone to free both hands for driving, he says.

Dialing? Use the one-button, speed-dial function, he says.

Dining? Buy the model that vibrates, instead of rings.

In the movies? Turn it off, but only after forwarding calls to Cellcom's electronic answering system, he urges.

"Our motto is 'Cellcom Speaks to Everyone.' This is coming to be part of the day-to-day life of every Israeli person," says Mr. Most.

Already there are more than 200,000 mobile phones in Israel.

Cellcom and Pelephone predict a joint market of more than 1 million users in a country of just over 5 million men, women and children.

"My 14-year-old daughter asked me for her own phone the other day," said Mr. Most.

"Already, I know people who don't let their teen-age kids go out without one, just in case they need to call someone."

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