"We were testing the water to see what would be the reaction from the market," said Tómasson, of Iceland's first attempts years ago to generate buzz about its tech potential.
Invest in Iceland Agency representatives floated Iceland's data center ideas to investors at a conference in New York in 2003. They were told IT transmission infrastructure between Iceland and North America wasn't strong enough and that "it was not the right moment."
"We put it on ice," Tómasson said.
Waiting for the Emerald Express
The investors were referring to the physical cables that keep the digital world connected. Fiber optic lines stretch underground and across seas to enable data transfer between faraway places. But users of those lines experience what technicians call unavoidable latency, the delay in computer processes that are run across distances. High latency would cause a website to load slowly, for example.
"For every mile, there's some delay," said Brad Brech, a board member of the Green Grid, an industry consortium that promotes IT efficiency. "We haven't solved all the physics yet."
Iceland is currently connected to neighboring Greenland, Scotland and Denmark through submarine lines that then connect to larger markets in Europe and North America. A new cable system, the Emerald Express, is set to link Iceland to the United States, Canada, Ireland, the United Kingdom and mainland Europe. It will be a "new superhighway system" for data, said Nancy Lyons, spokeswoman for Emerald Atlantis Ltd., which is building the system.
It's a 2,734-mile cable system that Iceland IT players have described as game-changing.
"It was very exciting news for us, of course, because the latency was the one [obstacle] with a lot of people," said Jason Pelletier of Green Earth Data, U.S. distributor for Thor Data Center. "Now that's not going to be an issue."
"It's like if AT&T were doubling the number of towers we have," added Green Earth Data CEO Olafur Olafsson.
Emerald Atlantis expects to have the lowest round-trip latency of any trans-Atlantic cable. It plans to ultimately build up its system to a rapid speed of 100 gigabits per second. That is fast enough to transmit all the printed works in the Library of Congress in 23 seconds, said a spokesman for tech consortium Internet2 in comments to Nextgov.
And a new cable system would provide additional needed bandwidth, said Fred Chong, director of the Greenscale Center for Energy-Efficient Computing at the University of California, Santa Barbara. That means more users can trade data between North America and Iceland with less congestion.
"This will definitely strengthen our position regarding the U.S.," said Tómasson, the Invest in Iceland Agency official.
Installation is scheduled to begin in the second half of next year, with a target ready-for-service date of December 2012. Until then, current latency levels are still workable for users who don't need quick data transfer.
'It's an education thing'
So transmission improvements are under way, but the newness of Iceland's tech scene remains as a hurdle. People just don't know about it yet.
"We've not been able to find a lot of big customers that are willing to bank on Iceland yet," said Brech, the Green Grid board member, who is also an IBM engineer.
"We've been in the driver's seat all these years trying to sell this data center [space] to foreign companies," said Tómasson. "They always have us on the monitor ... to see the progress."
Green Earth Data has set up shop in Europe and the United States to link clients to Thor Data Center.
"It's an education thing," said Olafsson, the CEO, in an interview at his office in Washington, D.C. "We've got to get out and market and do more PR. It's like anything that's new. People don't know about it."