COVID-19 has shown that Belgium can be much more digital
Video calls with colleagues, Skype calls with grandparents and watching YouTube clips en masse. All these technological tools make our lives more pleasant, help us feel useful and keep us busy while being locked up at home. Next Sunday, May 17th is World Communication Day, a day to briefly reflect on the importance of the internet for our economy and society. If COVID-19 had emerged ten years ago, life in quarantine would have undoubtedly been much more challenging. But the pressure exerted by the coronavirus has made us take a long, hard look at the facts; despite many network investments over the past few years, our country could still become a lot more digital.
Micha Berger, Chief Technology Officer Telenet
Over the past few weeks, several people have asked me what our daily lives would have been like if the coronavirus had broken out ten years ago. Would we have felt more isolated in 2010? I’m sure that would have been the case. Telecom networks are currently working overtime. Nowadays, the internet is pretty much the only way to work, get entertained, go shopping or stay in touch with family, friends, classmates, colleagues and customers. We e-meet regularly as if we’ve never done it any other way, consume news en masse and try to combat the loneliness of our grandparents in care homes with a daily video call. Many local traders and small businesses whom have had to close their doors are seeking creative ways to sell their products online and deliver to people’s homes, in order to survive the crisis. Ten years ago, this would have been unthinkable therefore, financial and psychological damage would have been much larger .
Don’t forget, it is only just over ten years ago that the smartphone became genuinely mainstream, that social networks such as Facebook became commonplace and that the hugely popular WhatsApp was created. We’d not even heard of Netflix in Europe ten years ago. And now, we use online collaborative tools such as Zoom, Hangouts and Slack to carry on working from home as if nothing has happened and guess what, it works!
The corona crisis has shown us that the technological sector in our country has undergone a genuine digital revolution over the past few decades and today, we are reaping the rewards. Six years ago, Telenet invested half a billion euros in ‘De Grote Netwerf’ with Telenet to expand the internet superhighway to twice its size. That allowed us to increase internet speeds from 100 megabits per second to 1 gigabit per second in just ten years. We also invested 250 million euros in our mobile network and next to that we invested heavily in the past 3 years in improving our customers in home wifi coverage. Without this investment, families and businesses would not have been able to step-up their data and internet requirements so drastically. So far so good.
The crisis, however, has also made it painfully clear that our country has a long way to go in terms of digitalization. We have care providers walking from room to room with a tablet to allow residents to chat with their children and grandchildren. Teachers sometimes have to improvise in order to teach our youngsters new subjects or to have them take exams from home. And why can’t medical experts deliver testing kits to all families in order to chart digitally who is and isn’t infected in each municipality? As far as I’m concerned, pandemics must be tackled quicker and more efficiently in the future and technology can play a bigger role. The technologies exist already but are yet to be translated in new processes, services and products.
Virologists and other experts have said that we will almost certainly have to face new viruses and further lockdowns in the future. This time, we have seen a huge traffic increase on the fixed network because of the lockdown and every sector is finding ad hoc solutions to use the network to accommodate the sudden crisis. In the future, things must be done differently. Let’s use the experiences from this unexpected economic and social crisis to set out the technological challenges for the next 2 to 3 years. And let's also make sure that next time we need to improvise less ad hoc and that we no longer consider digital as a second normal in theory, but as a second normal in practice that we can rely on immediately. Maybe, during the next lockdown, we will be delighted to have an excellent 5G network for our mobile phones and devices, where doctors can make diagnoses remotely so that life-threatening, face-to-face consultations don't have to continue and that we can use Virtual Reality and real time low latency technology on the shop floor or at home.
I am sure that we will feel much more comfortable if we tackle and invest in these vital technological advances. Not just on an economic, but also on a psychological level. After all, we are all missing the barbecues with colleagues, family and neighbors. Let’s agree that next time we’ll just carry on, with virtual reality. Then, as a country, we will have learnt something from the social challenges brought about by the Covid 19-crisis. Like many have said before, it is only in times of crisis that one becomes more creative. Let's be better prepared for the next challenge.