Poor speed and infrastructure are at heart of PM's Case 4000

As virus keeps Israelis home, internet is coping with the higher loads… so far

Israel has seen a 25% rise in internet use over the past 2 weeks as citizens log in for online schooling, business videoconferences, Pilates lessons

Shoshanna Solomon is The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

Illustrative: University faculty practice distance teaching ahead of the online spring semester. (Haifa Technion Spokesperson's Office)
Illustrative: University faculty practice distance teaching ahead of the online spring semester. (Haifa Technion Spokesperson's Office)

On Wednesday, 23-year old Yonatan, a first-year electrical engineering student at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, logged onto his computer at his apartment in Haifa and attended an online math class using videoconferencing technology.

“It went ok,” he said in a phone interview after the two-hour live online lesson. “The internet worked fine. So far things are working well. I’m now waiting for my next lesson.” He had six more hours of math and computer science on Wednesday — all online and from home.

In the days of coronavirus-prompted instructions to stay home, universities, schools, offices and government institutions worldwide are all scrambling to adapt to a “new normal” of virtual reality — online classes, video-chat business meetings, and unemployment payment requests uploaded to government websites.
Streaming services are also in high demand, with families stuck at home seeking relief in Netflix or other on-demand video shows and games from the depressing influx of continued bad news about a virus that has mown down thousands globally.

Bezeq Israel Telecom and Hot Telecommunication Systems Ltd., which control some 95 percent of the internet market, both reported a jump in demand for internet services. Bezeq said in a text message that it was witnessing a 30% rise in daily surfing volume and a 64% jump in new internet connections. Hot has posted a 30% rise in internet traffic and a jump in video on demand services, the Globes business daily reported.

Technion faculty practice distance teaching ahead of the opening of the online Spring semester (Technion Spokesperson’s Office)

The question needs to be asked: Will the internet of the so-called Startup Nation be able to withstand all this added demand?

The country that prides itself on being at the forefront of technology suffers from internet speeds that are below global averages and among the lowest for European countries, and has been slow to upgrade its infrastructure due to lack of competition. The issue is at the heart of so-called Case 4000, which revolves around alleged shady agreements between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Shaul Elovitch, the former controlling shareholder of telecom giant and internet infrastructure provider Bezeq. Netanyahu and Elovitch have both been charged with bribery.

“The internet is holding up for now,” said Yoram Hacohen, the CEO of the Israel Internet Association, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the use of the internet for research and collaboration. Data provided by the association shows that there has been a 25% rise in internet use in Israel over the past two weeks.

Yoram Hacohen, CEO of the Israel Internet Association ISOC-IL (Courtesy)

Anna, a 56-year old admin worker at a diamond manufacturing firm who was put on unpaid holiday leave along with the rest of her office on Tuesday, spent hours that evening trying to get into the website of the Israeli Employment Service, a first step toward getting unemployment benefits promised by the government as compensation during the coronavirus pandemic.

“There was apparently a surge in traffic, because everyone is seeking compensation,” she said by phone. Anna kept getting a message that she couldn’t sign up at the moment. She managed the next day, however.

Similarly, some websites provided by the Education Ministry crashed as children and parents tried to access online classes, with schools across the country shuttered amid the coronavirus outbreak.

“Some firms and institutions are not prepared for the surge in demand,” Hacohen said, and they will need to expand their computing and server capacity to withstand the growing demand for online services. This can be done by adding computing power, storage and online communication capabilities, he said. Companies that already work with cloud services have more flexibility to do this, he added.

What we may see, added Hacohen, is slower surfing speeds and slower connections at home, as the whole family, holed up together, logs onto their devices at the same time, which does not generally happen in normal times.

A closed school in the northern town of Safed on March 13, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Meanwhile, the Education Ministry has said that online learning for elementary and middle school students will cease on Thursday, five days after it began, after the Israel Teachers’ Union reached an agreement with the Finance Ministry for 180,000 teachers to be given paid vacation time through the end of the Passover holiday in April.

Ariel, a 17-year old, “almost 18,” from the Alliance high school in northern Tel Aviv, is still attending his online classes daily. “We started this week,” he said in a phone interview from his home, with classes starting at 10 a.m. and ending at 1 p.m. The students use a videoconference service to connect with their teacher, and when they need to ask questions, they switch off the mute button.

“It works sababa,” he said, using the Hebrew slang word for “cool” or “OK” – adding that some students were having audio problems. But the internet connection was smooth and there were no interruptions, he said. “Seems to be the best solution for the situation today,” he said, adding that he still prefers to study in a real class rather than via a laptop screen.

To prepare for the start of its online classes on Wednesday to serve its 11,000 graduate and 3,000 post-grad students, the Technion started testing its systems a week ago, said Prof. Hossam Haick, the dean of undergraduate studies who has been put in charge of the virtual learning effort underway at the university.

Prof. Hossam Haick of the Technion (Courtesy)

On Tuesday, a day before the start of the semester, it held a rehearsal, with 2,000 students and 34 lecturers.

“From 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. we ran parallel lectures in a super big experiment to check out our infrastructure,” he said. “There were only light hitches,” with some audio issues and some students who did not follow instructions, but on the whole “everything went well.”

Students now can access live courses using videoconferencing technology and a mix of live and pre-recorded classes, the university said.

Technion faculty practice distance teaching ahead of the opening of the online spring semester (Technion Spokesperson’s Office)

By mid-morning Wednesday, Haick had already received glowing feedback from professors who had held a total of 150 lectures that day, and everything had gone “excellently well,” he said.

Video streaming and chats are among the heaviest services for the internet, said Technion computer science professor Roy Friedman by phone. But there are ways to mitigate the load — by muting the video channels of people who are only watching and don’t need to be heard or seen, or by automatically lowering the resolution of video chats.

Technion computer science professor Roy Friedman (Technion Spokesperson’s Office)

Watching a movie and having a video chat are two very different things, he said. In a video chat “very little happens,” as opposed to the high resolutions needed for action-packed movies with fast changing scenes, which translate into large bandwidth consumption. Servers and client applications are able to automatically provide variable bit rates for the two different kinds of services, he said, lowering the resolution of the video chats but maintaining higher standards for the movies, and managing the load wisely based on available capacity and load.

“It looks encouraging meanwhile,” said Friedman, who is also the deputy VP for computing and information systems at the Technion. The internet and Technion’s network are “withstanding the load for now.”

Friedman said that it is important that network operators continue their work even in times of quarantine, to make sure routers and switches that fail can be replaced and fixed. “Without them, the internet could collapse, meaning no telemedicine, no work from home, no remote teaching, nothing. The internet has become a critical infrastructure.”

Meanwhile, in Tel Aviv, the diamond industry employee on unpaid leave, Anna, on Thursday took part in her first virtual Pilates class, with 21 women at home connecting with the male instructor via a conference call.

“It was fantastic,” she said in a text message, after she linked up with the class via her cellphone and earphones. “We were good at keeping quiet and listening to him, so the lesson went well.”

Welcome to the new normal.

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