The digital industry in turbulent corona times: Robust and Critical?

31 March 2020

We find ourselves in turbulent times. This week, we moved into the 3rd week of “working differently”. Despite the imposed restrictions, the technology sector is doing very well in Belgium. Due to the digital nature of our work, 92% of employees continue to work and technical unemployment can be kept to a minimum. Agoria reports a 7% rate of temporary unemployment in the digital and telecom industries. Kudos to everyone. A major customer has been upgrading their systems in recent days to allow 4,000 employees to access the corporate network so everyone can continue working from home. In addition, an upgrade of the internet line was required. Thanks to our telecom operators, this was realized very quickly. The operators also help out fantasticly for the home front by increasing the data volumes free of charge. BNIX peaked in recent days and had sufficient capacity. Our digital infrastructure is robustly built and can still grow. It seems that we are used to upgrading in our sector! This is our DNA, because the internet doubles every 18 months and we have to be ready for it all the time.
 
IT infrastructure must also remain in the air and possibly scale up. The scalability continues to improve with the introduction of virtualization and cloud technology. The data center workloads and compute instances rose 6.5 times between 2010 and 2018. Upgrading systems is easy, virtual machine spinning is fast, but we may have used up all infrastructure for the next 6 months in the past 2 weeks. In 8 years, the amount of data has increased times 26. We managed this growth.
 
Of course it’s people that drive these upgrades. In total, Belgium has more than 200,000 ICT workers, and the need for more increases by 4 percent every year. We are already short of 16,000 digital experts.
Building telecom infrastructure is not limited to higher educated people. There are also installation workers and subcontractors who build telecom infrastructure. Today many technicians from Fabricom, Veolia, ... are on the road to conduct repairs and maintenance on installations. Not everything is virtual; much of it is still very physical.
 
Hopefully, policy makers will learn from this crisis with regard to ICT and telecom. Stopping technological developments is not smart: think of 5G and the 4G delays in Brussels. What if there hadn't been 4G in Brussels? Policy makers should notice the added value our industry offers.
Legislation in the field of critical infrastructures is lagging behind: data centers and ICT should have a prominent role in this legislation. I personally discussed this several times at the crisis center.
 
According to the legislator, the “Critical Infrastructure” is responsible for the vital production and transport of energy, it concerns the vital hubs of transport, it concerns the indispensable links in the electronic payment system and the vital connections of the electronic communication. I find it strange that the digital industry is not a full part of the critical infrastructures.
 
Fortunately, there is still a lot of evolution in the ministerial decision: triggered by the Covid-19 crisis, digital infrastructure is recognized as an essential service. What exactly is meant by digital infrastructure is not entirely clear, but hopefully it will be handled pragmatically.