How is water powering the Israeli fiber optics revolution?

The most unlikely new player in the country is fast-tracking the ability for Israelis to have access to high-speed fiber optics: Mekorot, Israel’s national water company.

 CABLES: FIBER  optical cable  without sheath. (photo credit: REUTERS/ALESSANDRO BIANCHI)
CABLES: FIBER optical cable without sheath.

While Israel leads the world in technological and medical advances, what the country has been lacking lies within its own borders: accessibility to high-speed fiber optic internet for its citizens from the North to the South.

In Israel, the internet is available everywhere, from buses to trains, cafes to restaurants, health clinics to gym clubs, but it is just Wi-Fi.

While the world began going through a “fiber optic revolution” in the early portion of the last decade, Israel has only just begun its journey.

One might expect that all major cities such as Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa would have this sort of infrastructure as standard, but at the moment, only 42% of the country has access to these high-speed capabilities, according to Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel.

That leaves some sections of Tel Aviv, the tech capital of the world, without access to high-speed fiber optics, and naturally many in the periphery.

While Israel is years behind the fiber optics revolution, the most unlikely new player in the country is fast-tracking the ability for Israelis to have access to these technologies: Mekorot, Israel’s national water company.

Mekorot has been dipping its toes into the tech sector waters as of late, developing innovations that could be applied to multiple sectors in Israel, and the world.

Mekorot, which has been operating in the country since 1937, began investing heavily in breakthrough technologies in March of 2018, when the Knesset approved an initiative allowing companies like Mekorot, who are involved with and subsidized by the Israeli government, to do so.

Mekorot, listed on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, is a government company that operates under the Infrastructure, Energy and Water Resources Ministry, providing 80% of the drinking water in Israel with operations accounting for 70% of overall water consumption in the country.

It is also a world leader in big data, energy management, water quality and cyber protection with innovative developments that have proven themselves in the field.

 FIBER OPTICS of a cable without sheath. (credit: REUTERS/ALESSANDRO BIANCHI) FIBER OPTICS of a cable without sheath. (credit: REUTERS/ALESSANDRO BIANCHI)

Mekorot’s technologies improve the quality of water production and its consumption, and provide a myriad of benefits to the Israeli economy, while reducing the cost of living. They could also greatly improve the energy consumption, big data and cybersecurity sectors across the world, among other examples.

Focusing on fiber optics, the water company developed a way to fish fiber optic lines throughout the country using its already existing pipeline infrastructure that stretches from the far reaches of the North back down to the southern borders. One of the recent projects that were dispatched was to connect the Negev’s capital – the city of Beersheba – to Eilat, through a 280-km. pipeline.

“We got the idea from the army,” Mekorot chief technology officer Moti Shiri explained. “The fiber optics are used by the army along the road to listen to noise stemming from long distances. Whether it be a car, people or animals, the technology can pick up and pinpoint the sounds from far away.

“We didn’t start this project for communication capabilities, our goal was to change the pipe to a smart pipe,” Shiri said. “We wanted to know in every centimeter or every inch of pipe what is happening in real time.”

The fiber optics discovery ended up being just a plus to the equation, a plus that could save the Israeli economy and its citizens billions a year and countless hours of work in the process.

This makes it a prominent option to provide high-speed internet to the entirety of the country – especially sections that would otherwise not have access – at a lower cost than it would have originally been if the fiber optics cables were to be disseminated using non-existing infrastructure – infrastructure that would either have had to be commissioned or constructed from scratch.

“Our goal now is to connect the entirety of Israel to fiber optics,” Shiri said. “Not all of Israel is connected to fiber optics, and to connect them across the entire country costs a lot of money and takes a lot of time.”

Shiri said that considering Mekorot has pipes all across the country – even in the remote sections – that by using the pipes, communications companies can connect to these remote areas quickly, instead of waiting three to four years to do it.

If the infrastructure would have had to have been built from scratch, it could cost the Israeli economy billions in construction, deployment, digging, permits and creating the overall infrastructure companies would need to house the fiber optic lines within. Additionally, as a separate plus, Mekorot forwards the option to use indoor facilities for the construction of a data center and Hub.

Mekorot itself, is the owner of more than 13,000 km. of existing and protected underground infrastructure throughout Israel, which constitutes as essential valuable real estate for a fiber network deployment – real estate which will all eventually be filled with fiber optic capabilities.

To disseminate the lines throughout the country, Mekorot fashioned a way to insert fiber optics cables into the pipelines and dispatch them throughout the country – 2 km. at a time – using an innovative system that uses both water and air pressure to carry and transport the communication lines from one section of the country to the other.

Once placed, the engineer has the ability to connect the line to the surrounding area and then continue fishing the cable 2 km. down the line where another waits to repeat the process, and so on and so on.

Fiber optics cables were initially deployed throughout the company’s dedicated water lines to provide the company with the aforementioned abilities to identify the leakage, theft and loss of what is called “non-revenue water,” in addition to the status of the pipes – as the fiber optic lines make their way throughout the country.

While fiber optic cables provide the ability to allow access to high-speed internet, their utilization toward creating a sort of “smart-pipe,” equips Mekorot with far-reaching technological capabilities that allow them to best manage their water-management systems, which further down the line saves millions for Israelis.

Whether that be the continuous distributed sensing system (DSS) that detects anomalies – due to leaks, damages, excavation attempts, water shock and closure of uncontrolled bodies using acoustic signatures – the predictive maintenance models powered by AI, the increase of bandwidth and data transmitted between separate hubs or the ability to detect malicious cybersecurity threats that could harm or disrupt the system, fiber optics have countless technological capabilities associated with them.

“We took the fiber optic technology (from the army) to identify water theft,” Shiri began explaining. “After that we found that we could listen for leakage, which is why we put the fiber optics near the pipes, to pick up the acoustics and know where the leakage is.”

Following the initial deployment of the fiber optic lines beside the pipes, Mekorot decided to install the cables directly into the pipelines, within the water, Shiri said. Mekorot researchers and cohorts then ran studies and found the insertion of lines to have no effect on the fiber optics themselves or the water surrounding it.

After realizing the capabilities of the fiber optic network – beyond those specific to water management – Mekorot decided on the option to invite the major stakeholders in the Israeli telecom infrastructure market (Bezeq, Hot, Partner, Unlimited and other private companies) to work alongside them to disseminate these technologies to the Israeli public across the entire state.

This means that Mekorot sells the use of the pipe to the communications companies, which allows them the ability to disseminate the fiber optic lines to remote locations covered by Mekorot’s water system and convert them into infrastructure to house communications lines in, instead of having to dig, obtain permits and create the infrastructure themselves, which Shiri said could cost countless of shekels.

In September 2020, the Communications Ministry set out a road map for regulating the Fiber Optics National Network with a focus on encouraging fiber optics infrastructure deployment, determining a unified price for Internet and communication services, increasing the competition and devising an incentive program dubbed the “Universal Fund” in order to promote these capabilities in “non-economically viable areas.” 

Currently, Mekorot is in negotiations with a number of the large communications stakeholders in Israel, including Bezeq and Cellcom. Mekorot has leased out around 100 km. of pipe to get the project off the ground. One of the stakeholders has already requested 400 km. of Mekorot’s pipelines to deploy a fiber optic network that would connect Beersheba to Eilat.

“This is huge, they want to connect Beersheba to Eilat,” Shiri said. “To date, no one has connected Beersheba to Eilat and there is no fiber network throughout this entire area.”

Overall, Israel stands to be fully covered by a national fiber-optic high-speed network within the next five years – opening up a world of capabilities for the Jewish State – thanks to the innovation and creativity of Mekorot engineers in partnership with the government and large communications stakeholders in the country.

This article was written in cooperation with Mekorot.