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Closing the digital divide across Belgium

Real Conversations Podcast | S4 E1 | April 14, 2022


petra de sutter


As Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Public Administration, Public Enterprises, Telecommunication and Postal Services, De Sutter focuses on the challenges of digitalization and sustainability and is also responsible for the green agenda within wider government policy.

Digital technologies, services and skills sit front and center of modern society. They’re key to closing a widening divide between the digital haves and have-nots and ensuring a greener future. Madam Petra De Sutter, deputy Prime Minister of Belgium, discusses initiatives taking place across the country and what they mean for business, telecoms operators, and society as a whole.

Below is a transcript of this podcast. Some parts have been edited for clarity.

Michael Hainsworth: It’s been said that there’s no green without digital. And bridging the digital divide pairs well with our goal of reducing our carbon footprint. Nobody knows this quite like Madam Petra De Sutter, the deputy Prime Minister of Belgium. Among her many titles, Madame De Sutter is responsible for helping shepherd the country into a new age of Industry 4.0 under 5G and artificial intelligence by closing the skills gap of citizens of all ages.

Petra De Sutter: I strongly believe that those with low digital skills today are on the outside because the digitalization of our society is proceeding at a very rapid pace. And that's why closing the digital divide is so important. And we really need to make sure everybody's up to speed with digital progress, both in terms of access to the internet or digital applications. And also, in terms of digital literacy.

MH: I see kids on the streets panhandling asking for money, and I've had people say to me, things like, what does that kid need money for panhandling on the street? He's got a cell phone in his hand, but if that child didn't have one, they would be completely shut out from so many services that would help keep them from being on the street for any longer.

PDS: I fully agree. It's the same with refugees. If you see a refugee with a cell phone, people tend to say, oh, well, they don't need anything else because they have a cell phone. This is the only way that they can connect with their friends and family back home. And between them while on the move, I would say, so being connected and having access to internet, you could even say it's a basic right. A fundamental right these days, and everybody should have access to internet.

MH: We also saw the digital divide revealed during the course of COVID-19. What was the impact in Belgium of the digital divide during the pandemic?

PDS: It was very important because we thought in the beginning, COVID was, I would say, the big equalizer, and this has not happened in many, many instances, but if we talk about the digital divide, we could clearly see that when we all started to telework and children had to follow courses online, it was of course, the most vulnerable people that had little or no access to internet or skills that were left behind more than they already were before. So, you can really say that a digital divide is leading to a social divide and COVID has exaggerated and that was contrary to what we first expected. So connectivity, internet access, and skills are absolutely vital to fight against social exclusion.

MH: So then how did you approach these problems in Belgium?

PDS: I'm a member of the government. So, when we were talking about support for the most vulnerable people, as part of our support program during the COVID pandemic, we dedicated a certain sum, certain fund, if you want, specifically to fight the digital gap. And that as well as six million euros, in the Belgian budget, that's not small money. And we have worked together with the telecom operators for that. For instance, distributing free modems of laptops to the most vulnerable families.

We also have tried to support programs that strengthen the digital skills. So again, not only the physical access to internet, but also teaching people how to work on the internet. There have been many projects in Belgium that are working on this and operators have been working together with these programs and with government funding.

And then another different thing that is different in Belgium we have zones where internet access is not very good. I guess, many countries know these ‘white zones’ as we call them. And so, we have also provided specifically funding to increase the internet connectivity in these white zones, which are not good business cases for the operators, of course, as you can imagine. So that everyone in these zones, often remote zones or areas where not too many people are living, that these people as well could be connected. And again, during the pandemic, this was specifically important for telework and tele education.

MH: Outside of things like free modems, deploying technology into white zones. How can a telecommunications company adapt to your digital inclusion policies?

PDS: I think by working together with organizations that are close to vulnerable groups in society that work with inclusion with education of people that usually do not find the way to the classical education systems or the workplace. And we have quite some organizations that do that and operators can closely work with them. And we've seen a lot of examples in our country. Other examples have been that the operators themselves have started projects like, well, I guess I can use names and examples in this podcast, but in our country, Orange has started a digital center, which is a dedicated training center for digital skills. And we are very happy of course to see that operators also commit to these subjects and fight digital inclusion together with the government. And we will continue to work together with the operators in that respect.

MH: So, then what would you say to those who believe that bridging the digital divide isn't profitable for a telecommunications company?

PDS: Well, I would say that this is very shortsighted. I think I would say from a meta view, a global view, investing in the most vulnerable people, schooling people, upskilling people, bringing them to the digital world has only win-win also for operators. You could look at it purely economically of course, these people will become customers and they will remain in your networks, of course. But secondly, you are also helping the economy of the country.

We are absolutely in need of skilled people in the IT sector and whatever we can do from the government, from the educational system, but also from operators and all kinds of organizations that really help young people get into the IT sector is a win-win for the whole of society. I think it would be shortsighted to say that there's no immediate profit. I also believe, but that's my personal belief, that companies also telecom operators have some kind of societal responsibility.

They can really contribute because they are in such an essential business-like internet connectivity. We started saying, it's a basic right. So, if you're in that business, I think it's good that operators understand that they will have to provide that right to as many people as possible. And another final example is that we're working together now on a reform of the social tariff, which means that you give access to people at a reduced rate for these people that have low income, or usually can't afford a normal package to connect on the internet. So, these are all examples that together we can create win-win situations, even helping the most vulnerable groups in the society.

MH: Well, geography and location are frequently cited as the key fault lines in the digital divide. We also learned through the course of the pandemic that women were disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. How do we close the gender gap?

PDS: Yeah, that's a very nice question, because again, we are working on that from the government side. If you look at the pandemic and you say, well, the most vulnerable people have suffered more than the others also in terms of the digital gap, women, even more. We know that from UN studies that the gender poverty gap increases in times of crisis. Women often had higher chances to be unemployed. And also, because they had more to stay at home than before to look after the family, domestic violence has been more frequent than before and so on. And we can give a lot of examples, of course, why in the COVID crisis, women have been victimized more often than men. Now in the digital world, this is also clear, we know that women have less access to education, to digital skills.

We also find much less women in the IT sector than men. In Belgium, it's about three times less. So we have to encourage women to get into educational systems into the STEM domain, which is as you know science, technology, engineering, mathematics. Make sure that they stay there, that they are really finding their way into the IT sector, telecom sector, why not, and can strengthen that sector, because these are really domains where we lack skilled people in the IT sector.

And so, if we can push more women into that sector, it's a win-win not only because of, I would say women's emancipation aspects, but also because the sectors, we need more people. So this is really something that we have to work towards. And we have a government program which is called Women in Digital, where we try to do all these things and work together with all the sectors, even trade unions, of course, the educational sector and enterprises operators, and so on to work together to stimulate the entrance of more girls in the educational system towards these domains and also women into the IT sector.

MH: Older citizens as well were hit harder than younger over the course of the pandemic. As we revealed that digital divide, how do we teach our grandparents to live as digital citizens? I'm having enough trouble just getting them to figure out how to use the TV remote.

PDS: Yes, I share your feeling there sometimes. Well, yes, it's another group of course that cannot be left behind if we want to be an inclusive society, digitally inclusive, it's not only women, it's not only people that have a migratory background or from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, but also at the elderly. And it is again, as I said, access to the digital world, how to connect, how to work with the computer, but also skills. Of course, once you are connected you need to navigate the digital world, for example, more and more banking activities are fully online and are digital. They're closing down all the bank offices, wherever people are living. So you know, if you are not digitally skilled and connected and skilled, you are at risk to be left behind and not even be able to do your banking business. And also attitudes, because we know some people just simply, you cannot motivate them because they are a bit scared, or they don't trust digital systems.

And well, sometimes they're right, because there's a lot of, as you know smashing and phishing and a lot of fraud online. But anyhow, I would say data from a lot of studies show that we have to work to do on all these levels. And also, specifically for elderly people. And there are programs again that are run by different organizations to teach digital skills to elderly people, and I think they're very much needed, and we should support them from government side again.

MH: Is that the simple solution, just NGOs (non-governmental organization) that are focused on this gap kind of filling?

PDS: Well, yes, but there's also government run programs, of course, all kinds of educational programs for the public. I mean, not only for children and young people, where we should really invest in these programs that teach digital skills to people and also to elderly. So I think it's absolutely a duty for the private sector as well as the public sector. So NGOs can help, of course, but as again, as governments, we also have responsibilities there.

MH: Belgium very much focused on the issues tied to a sustainable future. And it's been said “there’s no green without digital.” How does a more sustainable future require digitalization?

PDS: Well, we are talking about the twin transition, the Green Transition, and the Digital Transition. And you will remember, and it is no coincidence, that this was the program of European Commission when they started last term. Ursula von der Leyen was very firm on that. So as a green politician myself, I'm very happy to see that we are all understanding that we really have to go to climate neutrality in 2050. And that the whole subject of the green deal, of course.

On the other hand, the digital evolution is as crucial and as important, we need more connectivity networks. It is transforming our economy and it will bring us to a more sustainable path and they can go together. Sometimes people are afraid that digitalization because of the energy consumption might not lead us in the right direction. But I think that we have to work on energy consumption of data centers of modem. Modems consume a lot of energy. We have to work on that.

And we can probably also expect if we move to the next level of connectivity, and here I'm talking about new technologies like fiber optic networks, but also 5G of course, which is running a bit late in our country here, but we are catching up very soon. This year, we expect that 5G will come and will be rolled out I would say by our operators. This will lead to applications that we cannot even imagine today, but that will lead to more efficient energy consumption. So, we're talking about smart energy, we’re talking about smart mobility, smart cities, everything that exists, you put smart in front of it, and then you have a grasp of what the future might look like.

And I'm sure that we can use the digital transition to move faster towards the green transition that we also need. Another aspect besides energy consumption, more efficient procedures that are indeed reducing the energy need, is also the whole concept of circular economy, which is going to go hand in hand, I would say, with the whole climate and energy policies that we put in place by recycling all kinds of apparatus’ and reusing, refurbishing, and so on. We will also, I would say, make steps towards, the green transition that we need and climate neutrality. And this is absolutely something that the telecommunications sector and the digital infrastructures of the future will have to take into account.

And we are working on that because I'm responsible for telecommunications, as you know. So, we are now having projects to look into the sector itself. What are they doing contributing to circular economy and less energy consumption? Should we have frameworks? I mean, legal frameworks to encourage them. I mean, we are looking into that and this is on our table for the next months to come. And I think it's a challenge for the sector itself as well.

MH: Well, tell me more about that, because as you point out, 5G is bringing us Industry 4.0 and a whole new opportunity for growth while meeting those sustainable development goals. Where is Belgium seeing opportunities for industry and consumers to prevent a new digital divide?

PDS: Yeah, well, it's a good question, because since we are accelerating in that respect, it will always be a point of attention if we accelerate into applications using AI algorithms, moving towards the Internet of Things. And so many other applications that we again can only dream of maybe self-driving cars. So many new technologies are coming that we will have to accompany people, up skilled people, to make sure that they can and use these technologies, because you will indeed at every technological advancement that you make, be it in this domain or in others, have people that are at risk to be left behind. And we have already discussed about the groups that are most fragile or most at risk for that.

So, I'll give you an example. I'm also responsible for post and we have a company in Belgium, Bpost, which has the major part of the post activities in our country. And they want to close post offices. And we, from the government side, we say, no, no, we want you to keep them open because you need to be close to people. And we want to keep that access. But of course, we have to think about new things to do for these post offices, where less and less people are coming to send letters and do the basic postal stuff. So, we are installing hubs for digital services. That means that let's say in a small, village, senior citizens who are not digitally skilled, but well, all the access is digital now. All the banking or other things that they need to do is digitalized.

They can go to the post office and the person there will help them to fill out forms online or to print a form and sign it and so on. So, when you have digitalization reaching the next level, as a government because I'm also responsible for public administration - you have to take into account that you always need an alternative for those people that are at risk of being left behind. So, in the future with the advancement of 5G and the IoT, AI algorithms, we will always have to make sure that we have an alternative in place, or we give support and training to people that are at risk for being left behind.

MH: Are you confident we can close the digital divide?

PDS: We have to. It's an ambition that we really have, but since it's moving so fast, there will always be people left behind that we will have to help. So, I'm sure it's not ever going to be 0%. There are people that are not following, because it's going so fast. I’m just giving you a simple example, at my age, I'm now very well accustomed to work on Twitter and Facebook, already, Instagram was something new, but I like it and I use it, but I'm an absolute ignorant when it comes to TikTok. Sometimes I don't even understand. I don't even understand what I'm watching. If I watch what, and my collaborators want me to do all kinds of strange things to be on TikTok, but after TikTok, something else will come where I will really be left behind. So, this is of course in social media, but there will be so many new advances in connectivity and digital technology, that there will always be people that we will have to help to get there.

MH: Are you now on TikTok? Am I going to be tuning into seeing you and members of the Belgian Green Party doing synchronized dancing?

PDS: [Laughter] Well, I'm not sure about other members of the Green Party, but some famous politicians are on TikTok. I don't know if you know Elio Di Rupo, who was the prime minister a couple of years ago. He's very, very popular on TikTok. So yes, this is the channel to reach out to people. And as politicians, we need to use all these new communications channels and be active there. But if I'm struggling with TikTok, my collaborators who are 25, they look at me as I am from another planet.

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