Israel's Best Wi-fi Emanates From This Minaret

In one Bedouin town, the minaret broadcasts the call to prayer — and fast bandwith internet. Here’s how it works

Nati Toker
Nati Tucker
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The mosque of the Hamza family in the town of Arara in the Negev.
The mosque of the Hamza family in the town of Arara in the Negev.Credit: Nati Tucker
Nati Toker
Nati Tucker

Last Wednesday, shortly after 3 P.M., the muezzin in the mosque of the Hamza family in the town of Arara in the Negev began to call out to worshippers. The mosque’s new and attractive roof is adorned with a silver dome, and is covered with smooth chiseled stone. At the top of the minaret are powerful loudspeakers that blast the sound in all directions, and scattered among them are several white objects.

In the nearby square stands Yoav Ludmer, the CEO and owner of communications company SMBIT. He pulls out his smartphone, connects to his company’s management system and smiles with pride: There are 50 people using the Internet via the minaret. At the top of the minaret he installed a system that uses a new and revolutionary technology – in which Israel is a world leader – that broadcasts a high-speed Wi-Fi network providing internet open to everyone, and free of charge.

The SMBIT project is not only one of the most interesting and surprising in the industry, it also could enable access to knowledge and technology and foster change in a town at the bottom of Israel’s socioeconomic ranking, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics. Arara’s communications infrastructure is dilapidated, and in order to help the community advance, the local council decided to use its government funding to provide free high-speed internet to residents.

The free internet is also available at the nearby school. “On the macro level, free internet for all is a good thing, but it depends how it is used,” says Salman Abu Jweied, the school’s principal, who has come to pray. “It gives people opportunities and advances the community. Everyone here has telephones, but the reception is poor. In this area in general, there is no cellphone reception.”

SMBIT in Arara
SMBIT in Arara

The project was led by local council head Naif Abu Arar. “The decision makers have woken up. It’s finally possible to advance something here, thanks to the 2017 government decision to provide funding to the Bedouin,” he explains in his office. “The Bedouin communities have no income sources – there are no industrial zones and no property tax [revenues].”

“Now there’s government money, and I’m using it to improve professional counseling [and point people] toward high-tech. That could help. The Wi-Fi coverage will help the residents. We started with the mosques and the public places, and in the second stage we’ll set it up in additional neighborhoods, for all Arara residents,” said Abu Arar.

All about cost

The objects on the minaret were developed by Siklu Communication, a telecom equipment company. The Petah Tikva-based company is a world leader in high-speed internet infrastructure, and its products remove major obstacles to providing high-speed internet coverage everywhere. Siklu was founded in 2008 by Israel Defense Prize laureate Izik Kirshenbaum, Yigal Leiba, Baruch Schwarz and Elad Dayan.

The company’s products use millimeter-wave technology, which is in an extremely high frequency gigahertz range, between 60Ghz and 70Ghz, used for shorter and more focused distances than in previous technologies.

Millimeter-wave communication makes it possible to send a large volume of information at high speeds, and to provide wireless services. Siklu’s systems create an alternative to, or complement, high-speed internet infrastructure, without fiber optic cables. Instead it uses an advanced wireless broadcasting method that focuses small beams on a specific point. This technology gives users fast bandwith without interfering with one another.

Building a high-speed fiber optic infrastructure for a wired connection often requires a considerable amount of digging underground – and high costs. The most expensive part of deploying a fiber optic network is the “last mile” – the section connecting the optical fibers in the street to the customer’s home.

Siklu’s solution is meant to enable a fast connection without a physical link. The company provides internet at 100 megabits per second to 10 gigabits per second.

Siklu started out in 2008 as an attempt to produce communications equipment and compete with large international corporations such as Nokia, but it didn’t work. In recent years the company began to concentrate on millimeter waves and alternative communications infrastructure.

The company has government and private customers in many countries, and is responsible for 60% of millimeter-wave installations in the United States, according to its own reports. To date, about 80,000 Siklu systems have been installed worldwide. Giant corporations, including Google and Facebook, have launched various projects in the field, but it was Israel’s Siklu that accumulated market share.

To demonstrate how stable millimeter-wave internet is, CEO Eyal Assa conducts an experiment in Siklu’s conference room: On one side of the room is a Siklu system, a kind of small dish that broadcasts information to an even smaller device, slightly thicker than a chocolate bar. Through the device you can watch a Champions League soccer game at a resolution of 4K in the conference room. Ronaldo has never looked better.

“This technology is designed for home use, and it enables a clean connection of 60 megabits to eight connection points,” says Assa, explaining the advantages of the company’s latest product. “Optical fibers are an essential product. We don’t compete with fiber manufacturers, because we provide complementary technology.”

“Here too, everything begins with an optical fiber, but the consumer doesn’t really care if he gets high-speed internet via fibers, by cell phone or through the air. Fiber deployment is very expensive, and requires coordination with the police and the municipality. It costs a lot of money and takes a lot of time. With our technology, if one building is connected to a fiber, you can connect others. A Siklu connection lets you connect several buildings by means of a single cable,” said Assa.

Siklu’s main advantage is the ability to reduce connection costs, but it’s still expensive and is can reach thousands of shekels for each connection. “That’s the most important thing in our business, to reduce the costs of connecting,” says Assa.

Siklu doesn’t report its financial data or investment in the company, but reports in 2015 said the company had raised $14 million, putting its total funding at $45 million. Investors include the American investment fund Amiti Ventures and Qualcomm Ventures. 

“When you look ahead, the vision is clear: Our homes have become a communications center,” says Assa, explaining that the advantage of Siklu’s technology is the ability to provide symmetrical internet connections – equal speeds for both downloading and uploading content. 
“The reigning concept in the past was that we would get high-speed communication, but we wouldn’t have to broadcast from inside the house.

Today that’s changing. An app that allows us to receive a medical opinion via the internet obligates us to conduct a video conference and to broadcast from home with reliable broadcasting quality. That means we need symmetrical communication,” said Assa.

Millimeter-wave technology is likely to encounter major difficulties in bad weather, such as rain. It is also restricted because it allows for a connection between two fixed points – an advantage that prevents communications networks from interfering with one another – but lacks mobility.

A MarketWatch study from January reveals that millimeter-wave technology generated $670 million in revenue in 2017, and is expected to reach almost $11 billion in 2026, with an annual growth rate of about 36%. Although Siklu is considered one of the innovative companies in the field – and according to its own reporting it leads U.S. installations – it still has significant competitors worldwide. Almost two-thirds of the global market has been captured by E-Band Communications and Keysight Technologies from the United States, and Japan’s NEC.

The demand for millimeter waves will increase steadily over the years – mainly thanks to cellular companies, which are preparing for deployment of faster, 5th Generation networks. In order to deploy this high-speed network over large areas, the cellular companies must create high quality communications with millimeter waves at a speed of up to 10 gigabits per second.

Companies such as Apple, Nokia and Ericsson are testing these technologies and the ways in which they can be used to improve the performance of cellular networks. At the same time, additional services including smart cities, cloud computing and the Internet of Things will need more and more Wi-Fi access options.

Game-changing solutions

It is questionable whether a relatively small Israeli firm will continue to dominate this market. At the same time, optical fibers will likely be increasingly used to provide a far more stable, better solution for transferring information than a traditional wireless network.

Siklu does not sell equipment directly to customers, but only to telecom companies or internet providers. This equipment enables internet access in places where a physical online internet connection is not economically feasible – usually in areas with a low population density and private homes.

Israel also has Siklu systems installed, but currently only for public use. Many municipalities have installed these systems to deploy security cameras. For example, the Dead Sea region has free high-speed internet using Siklu’s infrastructure. The Israel Police, when it prepares for mass events, sometimes installs Siklu systems in order to have a communication infrastructure that is not based on a cellular network, which tends to break down during crowded events.

Siklu’s solution could also be used as an alternative method to optical networks in Israel – an industry in which Israel has fallen behind. But meanwhile, Ludmer of SMBIT is constantly installing Siklu systems in public buildings. The firm now has 25 employees and about another 50 contract workers. To date it has connected about 1,000 Siklu links in Israel.

Ludmer came to this business almost by chance. His daughter’s high school principal in Mazkeret Batya knew that he was knowledgeable about the field, and asked for help in setting up a communications network in the school. Bezeq International had installed the network in the school, but Ludmer took matters into his own hands and realized that he could do it better, faster and cheaper.

After carrying out the project in his daughter’s school, Ludmer realized it had business potential, and in 2012 he began to provide similar services to schools throughout the country. “One day they invited us to Bezeq International and hinted  that we were harming their business model. They tried to attack us and to disparage us, but we were successful,” he says. 

Today SMBIT manages the internet infrastructure in all the schools in cities such as Rishon Letzion, Rehovot and Herzliya, and runs projects for about 15 additional cities, including Tel Aviv and Jerusalem – which is building a network of cameras all over the city as part of the City Without Violence project.

SMBIT – which is already operating the communication networks in about 10% of Israeli schools – is trying to win many more competitive bids to run municipal communication networks and to equip smart cities. Recently it bid on such a tender in Kiryat Ekron – and won. For Ludmer, the victory in Kiryat Ekron is a milestone, because he was competing directly against Bezeq.

“Bezeq is an outstanding engineering company. I pay them 70,000 shekels ($19,000) a month for services. But their business conduct and their pricing are scandalous. The prices they charge the public are high,” he said.

Ludmer is not exactly a welcome guest at the Bezeq offices in the Azrieli Tower in Tel Aviv. His ability to create an internal private network that is connected to the internet through a single Bezeq connection – rather than an internet network based entirely on Bezeq’s internet connection points – significantly reduces Bezeq’s income from local governments and schools.

“So far we have enabled a saving of 2 to 3 million shekels for municipalities that dismantled transmission lines and connected to a private network.” It cost Bezeq a lot of money, says Ludmer. “We’re part of the municipal communication infrastructure, and enable the use of this network for all types of applications. Municipalities want to have an independent network without being dependent on another service provider. The municipalities want optical fibers, but they don’t reach everywhere. Municipalities also need a communications infrastructure that they can use as a backup in case of an emergency.”

Ludmer says that he considers his activity not only a business but a mission as well. “These are game-changing solutions. If schools, the weak customers, have internet access – that creates change. The revolution has not yet begun.”

Without internet, you don’t exist

As always, the technology is several steps ahead of the regulators. Millimeter waves are not regulated at all in the United States, while in Europe they are partially regulated. In Israel, work is still being done in this area. The Communication Ministry allocates frequencies to local governments or government bodies, but no comprehensive regulation for private use of millimeter waves yet exists and there are no permits required for private sales of the company’s technology.

SMBIT received approval from the Communications Ministry to conduct a test to deploy millimeter-wave internet by means of Siklu’s technology, and today it is conducting an interesting experiment in the Druze town of Isfiya in the north. The internet infrastructure in the town is very rickety, or nonexistent. The initiative there is not to operate a municipal communications network, but rather an entirely private one – a service that enables city residents to connect to high-speed internet through Siklu’s system.

As for the effect of the experiment on residents, Walid Kuntar, who is leading the project in Isfiya, said: “Internet is a very necessary product, right after water and electricity. If you don’t have internet – you don’t exist.” It helps on many levels. Our education system suffers from a lack of internet. In many neighborhoods there’s no Bezeq at all and there’s no HOT [cable television] infrastructure.”

Studies conducted in England showed that the faster and more stable the internet infrastructure is, the greater the economic growth. In Isfiya, Arara or any community in need of a high-speed internet infrastructure, they need high-speed internet without having to dig up the town – at a high cost. Based on Siklu’s deployment in Arara, the solution may just come from God.

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