Three-pronged effort breathes life into ‘Digital Israel’

With a fast data network by the IEC and a fast network backbone by Cisco, Israel is ready for its ‘digital revolution’

Bezeq workers installing fiber optic cables. (Courtesy)
Bezeq workers installing fiber optic cables. (Courtesy)

Within just a few years, “paperwork” as we know it will be a thing of the past in Israel, at least as far as the government is concerned. Last week, the Cabinet approved the final go-ahead for the “Digital Israel” project, which promises “paperless” interaction between citizens and government, and between government offices.

The project entails not just the digitizing of records and documents; in order to ensure that all citizens can take advantage of the benefits of Digital Israel, the government is seeking to advance the wiring of fiber-optic cables throughout the country, ensuring they reach all cities, towns, and villages. That project, led by the ViaEuropa consortium in conjunction with the Israel Electric Company, is already under way, and this week the government approved the transfer of NIS 75 million to the consortium for further development of the project.

The government sees Digital Israel as far more than a technology project. Part of the mission, which is to be led by the Prime Minister’s Office, is “to expand connection to the Internet and access to digital services among all populations in Israel, including those in the geographical and social periphery.” The director of the project (temporarily headed by the Director of the Prime Minister’s Office, Harel Locker) will coordinate with all government ministries (all of them) to develop standards and methods for individuals, businesses, institutions, and government offices to exchange documents and information digitally.

Success of the project, the government said in its decision, will be measured in the ability of Israelis to interact with government “in an advance digital environment, ensuring secure and safe access, the enhancement of human resources, the advancement of digital technology and communications in business, and enhanced digital literacy among Israelis.”

In order to ensure that everything works the way it is supposed to, the government is also subsidizing a fiber-optic network that will let Israelis surf the Internet at speeds of 1 gbps (1 gigabit, or 1000 megabits, per second) and more. The network is being built by a group of companies led by Sweden’s ViaEuropa along the same cable lines already serving the Israel Electric Company. By 2020, some 70% of the country should be covered, ViaEuropa said, with a total of 25,000 kilometers of fiber optics in place when the project is fully completed.

The IEC data network will be Israel’s third, joining the existing Bezeq and Hot Cable data infrastructures. Neither of those currently have a fiber to the home (FTTH) network to compete with the IEC, but both have plans to roll out advanced fiber networks in the coming years, company spokespeople said.

Providing the data transfer infrastructure for this fast network will be Cisco, whose CEO, John Chambers, sees Israel as a “test case” for how much better a fully connected and fully digital world can be. On a recent visit to Israel, Chambers said that developing a fast Internet would have a “huge impact” on education, health, security, and employment. “We want Israel to be the example of how a fast broadband infrastructure will change society,” Chambers said.

“We are doing here what no nation has ever done, remaking a society. And when you do that, you create new opportunities that everyone can take advantage of, including minorities, who will have the ability to get ahead in the dozens and hundreds of new enterprises and businesses that will now be able to open up,” added Chambers. Taken together, this three-pronged effort – the digitization of government, the implementation of a super-fast Internet, and the advanced data transfer promised by Cisco – will put Israel at or close to the top of the list of countries, like, South Korea and Singapore, where almost everything is digitized.

But there are dangers in an “everything digital” government project – with the web woes associated with the sign-up sites for the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) in the U.S. a prime example. There, programming glitches prevented sign-ups to the program, despite months of preparation, and perhaps irreversible damage was done to the effort, which became the butt of many a late-night chat show host’s jokey monologues.

Israel’s government is even more ambitious – hoping to create a fully digital society – and that, according to top U.S. security expert Paul de Souza, could be a big problem for Israel. In a recent interview, de Souza said that failing to adequately secure the far-ranging network connections being envisioned could make Israel not the world’s most digital country, but the world’s most hacked country, turning millions of devices into “zombies,” for hackers to use as they please.

When government web sites, traffic lights, work schedules, consumer information databases, bus timetables, and everything else is administered from a server, security had better be top-notch, said de Souza – otherwise you could have a society at the mercy of hackers. “You can’t compromise national security just because you want the country to be extremely innovative,” de Souza said in the interview with Bloomberg. “Imagine Israel with millions of zombies that have super capability and can bring down countries.”

That won’t happen, a government spokesperson said. Security is a top priority of the Digital Israel project; Israel, the spokesperson said, successfully fights off thousands of hack attacks daily, so it has proven it can deal with cyber-dangers. “Israel is at the cusp of a digital revolution,” said the Prime Minister’s Office. “Establishing an advanced data network along the Israel Electric Company’s network will provide fast, low-cost, and secure transfer of data, providing Israelis all over the country to benefit from high-quality and advanced digital services. It is a great opportunity to enhance government services, as well as provide businesses – especially small and medium sized businesses – with greater opportunities.”

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