Text size

On Tuesday afternoon it was hard not to notice Nadav Horesh and Adam Rimon at Safra Square in front of the Jerusalem Municipality. The two of them, 11th-graders at the ORT school at Givat Ram, were walking from one side of the square to the other, with their eyes on the screen of Horesh's laptop computer, trying to pick up the wireless signal that was being sent from one of the nearby buildings.

Officially, this was the first day of operation of the wireless networks that cover the downtown area and allow anyone who is equipped with a computer that has a wireless network card to use it to surf the Internet for free, but Horesh and Rimon were visiting the square for the second time in 24 hours. On the previous evening, when Mayor Uri Lupolianski inaugurated the Wi-Fi network, as it is called, at an impressive ceremony with the initiators of the project, the two were also there, enthusiastic about the possibility of surfing the Net in a public place without wires and for free.

"Let's hope they will spread the network to all kinds of places, not just downtown," enthuses Horesh, who fantasizes about conducting Internet conference calls with his friend without having to be dependent on a land-based connection. "It's good if everywhere in the city it will be possible to surf, to get information, to keep up with the news and to download porno."

As for the declared aims of the initiative - breathing life into the downtown area and making the capital attractive to young people who are emigrating from it to the center of the country - the two teens are skeptical.

"I don't think that this is what is going to keep young people in the city," says Horesh. "Most people don't have the money to buy laptop computers or wireless network cards."

Rimon agrees: "This will improve the city's image, but it won't necessarily keep people in Jerusalem. Maybe it will keep only the rich in the city, but all the rest have nothing to do with this."

Sarah Hefer and Vidal Cohen, who a few minutes earlier had tried to connect to the network from the Village Green Cafe on Jaffa Road, are complimentary but skeptical.

"There are a thousand other things that need to be done in this city. People aren't going to stay here because of the Internet and anyone who loves Jerusalem is going stay with no connection to this project. I don't understand why they need to do this, but it's a groovy initiative," says Vidal. Adds Hefer: "It gets people out to the street instead of them sitting in front of the computer at home."

`Love at first sight'

The initiative to turn Jerusalem into the first city in Israel in which there is an infrastructure, in some areas, for wireless computer use was conceived simultaneously in the minds of three people. Shai Kavas, 32, the director of the Wi-Fi program at Intel Israel, is one of them. He says that as a computer person who travels abroad, he had been amazed to see more and more "hot spots" (a geographic location in which an access point provides public wireless broadband network services) cropping up, allowing surfers to connect to the Internet from anywhere.

"Most people get confused between this and cellular communications. At the same time," says Kavas, "as a Jerusalemite, it hurt me to see the downtown area suffering from a harsh recession. Ten months ago I said to myself that making the city wireless could help it a lot."

After he described the idea to his bosses at Intel, suggesting that the contribution to the community would allow the company to display the technological abilities that it is known for, he received Intel's blessing and began the long process of attempting to enlist other investors in the initiative.

"All kinds of people and companies that I went to with the idea in the early stages asked me to show them a business model, and when I explained to them that the whole project would be free, for the community, they were put off," recalls Kavas.

However, parallel to his efforts, and without them being aware of each other, Jacob Ner David, a high-tech person and the chairman of the Association for Business Development in Jerusalem, was acting together with Mati Herbst, the CEO of Compumat, to realize the same vision.

"During the course of Jacob and Mati's attempts to enlist investors they came to Intel. They were told that `we have a nut of our own who is crazy about this and you have to meet him,' and that is what happened. It was love at first sight," says Kavas.

After enlisting the additional investors - among them the Cisco company, Check Point and Golden Lines - the project, the initial costs of which came to about NIS 1 million, went into high gear. "At first the municipality didn't really know what we were talking about, but after they understood how much an idea like this could be good for them, and that they would not need to invest any money in it, they cleared a lot of bureaucratic obstacles for us and began to move forward, almost at the pace that I know from high-tech," says Kavas.

In the first stage 12 hot spots were set up in the area of the Nahalat Shiva and Ben Yehuda pedestrian malls, extending as far as Safra Square. Each wireless router is connected to an antenna that covers a radius of 300 to 500 meters (depending on the conditions on the ground) and allows surfing at a speed of 54 megabytes in the area that it covers. Connecting to the network is an intuitive process: The moment a laptop or palm-held computer is in the area of a hot spot, the user is asked to agree to the conditions for using the network - mainly a promise not to use it for untoward purposes, on the one hand, and acknowledgment that there is no guarantee for any damages that may be caused to the computer while surfing, on the other. After that, the user can surf at his pleasure at a dizzying speed, even faster than when using a fast Internet via a land line.

"At the next stage, which was carried out within a few weeks," says Ner David, "the network will also be spread in the Emek Refaim area and at sites in the Old City - in accordance with the needs of the area's population."

After that, other areas, like the shopping malls, the university and government offices, will become Wi-Fi spaces. In the future location-based services will be offered that will, for example, enable tourists who connect to it to know where they are in the city. Ner David stresses that the network belongs to a nonprofit association, and that the municipality will not be asked to participate in its maintenance costs. "We hope that the network will remain free forever," he says.

And other cities?

Jerusalem is not the only locale in Israel that is planning to provide its inhabitants with free Internet wireless connections. A similar network is expected to be set up in Shoham (near the airport), which has 18,000 residents, that will cover all the public spaces in the community. According to Gilad Rabinowitz, the volunteer deputy head of the local council, the wireless project in Shoham is aimed above all at advancing the educational network there and providing technological training to adults.

"The education project is the most important thing in this story, while the Wi-Fi is sexier," he explains. "We are building a platform for a connection between students and their parents and teachers, and are enabling students to get lesson outlines and learning materials over the network, and even to participate in classes if they are sick at home."

As in Jerusalem, in Shoham, too, the project is being carried out thanks to sponsorship by an external factor, Bezeq International in this case.

What about other cities? While the Haifa Municipality says that there "the initial work is being done, at the end of which the municipality intends to provide wireless Internet services - for example, in places of entertainment and in underprivileged areas." At the Be'er Sheva Municipality they have never heard of Wi-Fi, and the person in charge of urban communications at the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality says that "there is some thought about doing this in the future, but nothing concrete."

However, in Tel Aviv, as in many cities in the world, the municipality apparently will not need the help of any external entities to turn the city into a wireless surfing zone. Many of the cafes in the city, for example, are equipped with wireless routers that provide customers (and people in the surrounding areas) with free wireless Internet, and initiatives by inhabitants who share their home network with the community have already turned places like Masaryk Plaza, Rothschild Boulevard and the Sheinkin area into free wireless surfing zones.

Ner David does not see any difference between the two cities in this respect: "Here, too, it is an initiative that is coming `from the ground up.' It involves the cooperation of entrepreneurs and small business people. The vision of all of us is to change the image of Jerusalem and cause the city to be not only an old city, but also a modern one. In fact, this is another weapon in the battle to save it."