Israel sets sights on next-generation Internet

By Josef Federman

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Jan. 26 2012 11:15 p.m. MST

In this photo taken Monday, Jan. 9, 2012, an employee views a computer screen showing a helicopter and engineers of the Israeli Electric Company installing devices, at the Israeli Electric Company head-quarters in Tel Aviv, Israel. One of the most wired nations on the planet is about to get even more connected. Israel's state-owned electric company is finalizing plans to build a nationwide high-speed broadband network, hoping to put the country at the forefront of the next generation of Internet technology.

Ariel Schalit, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

JERUSALEM — Israel is often referred to as "Startup Nation," thanks to its long history of high-tech breakthroughs produced by scrappy little companies. But in one critical area, the speed of Internet connections, Israel has fallen behind other tech-savvy countries.

In the coming months, Israel's state-owned electric company hopes to change this by rolling out a nationwide, high-speed broadband network. Exploiting the small size of the densely populated country, the effort aims to put Israel at the forefront of the next generation of Internet technology.

Experts say the fiber-optic lines can provide connections of 10 to 100 times current speeds, transforming the way the Internet is used in such areas as entertainment, business and health care.

"All the developing countries that have a vision for 10 years ahead, or 20 years ahead, understand that the name of the game will be communications, broadband communications, very fast communications," said Tzvi Harpak, the electric company's senior vice president for logistics.

The technology is known as "fiber to the home," or FTTH. Using fiber optic lines, it can provide connection speeds of 100 megabits to a blazing 1 gigabit per second. Today, the typical broadband user in the developed world connects at five to 10 megabits using older cable and DSL connections.

Oliver Johnson, chief executive of British research firm Point Topic, said FTTH technology is the "gold standard" of the next generation of broadband service. Although cable and DSL lines can be upgraded to higher speeds, FTTH has smoother transmission of data and a much higher upside in terms of speed, he said.

"It's easier to go higher. It's future-proofed," he said.

The added bandwidth could transform the way the Internet is used. Massive video files will be downloaded instantly, opening the door for high-definition and 3D movies to be delivered more easily.

Since the system will have equally fast upload speeds, individuals or businesses will also be able to deliver pictures, videos and other large files. In South Korea, where FTTH lines are common, users rave of the lightning fast downloads and crystal clear Skype connections.

This could mean much-improved videoconferences in the workplace, easy sharing of information in complicated engineering tasks, doctors monitoring their patients or assisting in operations by long distance. It will also likely speed up the migration of information, photos and video from personal computers to the "cloud," making it easy for users to access their information from any Internet connection.

Around the world, decision-makers are reaching the conclusion that faster connections will be essential for economic growth. A number of countries are engaged in a gold rush of sorts as they build new networks with FTTH technology.

"Everyone feels that bandwidth will be this commodity down the road. If you don't have it, you'll be out of luck," said David St. John, spokesman for the FTTH Council, an industry trade group based in the U.S.

FTTH technology was introduced more than a decade ago, but adoption has generally been slow because of its high costs. As costs have gradually come down, particularly in densely populated areas, it has begun to take off. And when new networks are rolled out, it makes more sense to go with the new technology.

According to the council, heavily urbanized South Korea leads the world with just over half of households connected to FTTH lines, followed by Japan and Hong Kong, both at about 40 percent. In the U.S., about 7.1 million homes, or 6.6 percent, have the technology through services like Verizon's FiOS.

Not surprisingly, South Korea leads the world in average broadband connection speed at 13.8 mbps, followed by Hong Kong and Japan, according to Akamai Technologies Inc.'s closely watched "State of the Internet" report. The U.S. is ranked 16th.

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