Data Diplomat. Prime Minister of Luxembourg Xavier Bettel on technology, culture and people




Photo credit: Alexandros Michailidis Shutterstock.com

Technology has the power to change lives. For better or for worse, there seems to be no way back but only forward, and governments all over the world are gearing up their digital efforts to cope with an ever-growing tech-savvy global society.

Luxembourg leads up some of Europe’s most technologically advanced nations, not only from indeed a technological standpoint, but a whole infrastructure, government and business ecosystem that allows the sector to create, innovate and expand. In an exclusive interview, the Prime Minister of Luxembourg, Xavier Bettel, speaks to Data Economy’s João Marques Lima on his views of technology, how Luxembourg is positioned to win and what the future holds not only for the Western European nation but the wider continent.

On October 10, 2006, the Government of Luxembourg took a different approach. They realised the future belongs to digital and with that in mind the government set up the backbone for what it is today an established data centre hub within the Luxembourgish border.

Having gone from the steel industry to the financial and satellite business roadmaps in the 1970s, on that day back in 2006, when Jean-Claude Juncker was still serving as Prime Minister – a role he would only leave in 2013 to become President of the European Commission -, the country officially started a new era built on data centres through the creation of operator LuxConnect.

Ever since, Luxembourg has seen not only its data centre infrastructure footprint expand, but also its fiber, energy generation, research labs, and much more, which has created an extraordinary hub in the heart of Europe, not only for financial services, but to all other verticals, including foreign Governments through the launch of Data Embassies.

Succeeding Juncker and continuing to carry the flame of tech is current Prime Minister Xavier Bettel, a truly digital diplomat with an understanding of how technology can improve lives.

With an eye set on the future, Bettel sits down with João Marques Lima and opens the Grand Duchy’s doors to Data Economy on a wander through the digital routes of the past, present and future of Luxembourg.

 

What is the current technology that really has got your attention for being both revolutionary and has the “power” to change life for better?

PM Xavier Bettel. Credit: Alexandros Michailidis, Shutterstock.com

“Current” is always a bit of a difficult word when it comes to technology, because innovative ideas or products often grow and mature in waves.

Consequently, over time, new technologies experience highs during which they are heavily publicized and on everybody’s mind. They also go through lows, during which they appear to be completely forgotten.

Yet, the research continues! Having said that, I am actually very fond of the world of virtual and augmented reality. Yes, the technology, or at the very least the idea and concepts of VR and AR, have been around for quite some time now.

But it is truly exciting to discover all the new opportunities these technologies offer us thanks to the recent advances in computing power, be it in the medical domain, in education, in transport…they make our world better and safer!

 

There have been many talks around the digitalisation of the European Union’s Single Market. What is being done here?

The Digital Single Market strategy is a crucial element to achieving an integrated Single Market in its digital dimension.

It is a unique opportunity for Europe to bring down barriers that still persist in the online world across the continent. The problem is that European businesses and consumers are often confined within their national markets.

While European companies should benefit from a base of more than 500 million potential customers to scaleup their activities across borders, European citizens should be allowed to buy what they want throughout Europe.

In order to reap the full potential of our digital economy, European rules must ultimately enable and encourage our businesses and citizens to buy and sell their services and products anywhere in the European Union.

 

What is Luxembourg’s role in the initiatives related to the Digital Single Market?

In the context of the Digital Single Market strategy, it is therefore important that we support the European Commission to come up with ambitious proposals to further deepen the integration of the European Single Market.

At the same time, we do not shy at criticizing it when we think that their initiatives are not courageous or ambitious enough. To put it in a nutshell, we have to be the voice of an ambitious ‘Digital Europe’ throughout the European decision making process if we want to make the digitization of European Union a success for our citizens and businesses.

In addition, it is essential that we keep the digitalization of Europe high on our political agendas. If we want Europe to assert its leading role as a global player in the field of digitization, we need to keep on discussing and implementing innovative solutions in order to overcome national fragmentation.

It is only through increased cooperation and deeper market integration that Europe can successfully face the digital challenges the lie ahead of us.

 

Jüri Ratas, PM, Estonia – Angela Merkel, Chancellor, Germany – Xavier Bettel, PM, Luxembourg, talk during a union-wide meeting between the EU’s 27 in Estonia in 2017. Photo credit: Alexandros Michailidis, Shutterstock.com

With the recent data privacy breaches such as Cambridge Analytics, what is the role of a national government in ensuring its citizen’s data is safe at all times and guarantee transparency? Is Luxembourg preparing any extra legislation on top of GDPR?

The role of the national Government is to create a framework in which the citizen is safe. In regards to personal data, we are currently supporting the national independent Data Protection Authority CNPD to accomplish its growing missions and make sure it has the manpower to be an efficient regulator.

Let me stress here that I do not perceive the interest of the citizen and the interest of tech businesses as mutually exclusive.

Protecting the citizen’s data means developing state-of-the-art tech infrastructure, beneficial for everyone. GDPR is directly applicable in the Member States, so we do not prepare extra legislation, but we act in the best interest of both citizens and of the technological environment wherever possible on legislative or tech level.

 

Beyond the data privacy issues recently uncovered, how can other events such as, for example, Brexit or the Trade War between the US and China, affect the wider technology space and what can be done to minimise the impact?

These issues will surely keep society and politics busy for quite a while. At the same time, I am convinced that we have to keep a positive attitude, and face our challenges with confidence. We live in a world of perpetual change, and this change affects all areas of our lives.

And sometimes, the transformation that we live through is unexpected and abrupt, whether it is a technological change or a political one. As politicians, we need to keep working hard, and really listen to our citizens’ questions and worries.

We may live in a technologically interconnected world, but I think it is even more important to reconnect on a basic, human level. No one should feel invisible, or left behind, or hopeless.

I am convinced that the best way to prepare our society for the future and minimize any negative impacts from current and future issues is to put the humans in the centre, and to use technology to improve their lives.

Luxembourg has seen in the last 24 months a huge increase in interest regarding data centres.

 

How do you see this industry and what is the government doing to help the sector – from working frameworks to telecommunications and so on?

The ICT community of the financial sector developed strong competencies and a large IT community over the years.

Using the ICT-skills of the finance sector they’ve worked in parallel on multiple themes such as governance, regulatory, security and ICT architecture. In combination with our aim to go for the highest reliability also on the field of electricity supply and pricing, we ended up delivering a complete data centre eco-system in Luxembourg.

Continuous investment has been made in order to ensure Luxembourg has a modern electricity infrastructure with a focus on network stability, resulting in virtually no service interruptions for many years.

Luxembourg is the EU’s number one in a comparison indicating the average annual power outage time for clients connected to the power grid, as it is confirmed by Eurostat.

We have nowadays some 23 public data centres with some 500.000 sqf of floor space. Although all data centre tier levels are available in Luxembourg with a new look and feel, we are quite proud to have achieved the highest density of Tier IV level data centres in the EU.

As a government, we tried to create a framework in which data centres can flourish. We have also pushed for advanced initiatives to reduce the carbon footprint by creating eco-friendly data centres with 100% green electrical energy.

High-density racks benefit from highly competitive electricity pricing in Luxembourg, whereby we have amongst the lowest energy prices in the EU.

Data centres are no islands however, we have actively facilitated that the major Tier 1 and 2 carriers are now having a POP in Luxembourg, there are more than 30 nowadays. All of this allowed that Luxembourg turned in no time to a nearly zero milliseconds ultra-low latency hub.

Also, our citizens clearly benefit from our ultra-high bandwidth policy as we are firm believers in ultra-high speed broadband as an axe for the development of the country.

Already in 2015 we achieved nearly 100% of ultra-high speed broadband coverage (100 Mbps download). We further massively roll out 1 Gbps download – 500 Mbps upload internet access, whereby we current achieved almost 65% coverage, which is roughly 142 times as fast as the world average. Let me add something about our Government’s recent data embassy initiative.

My Government launched in 2017 an innovative data embassy solution in a one-stop shop philosophy. That means storing critical data of a country as a backup in a data centre in Luxembourg.

Multiple concept levels (rooms-based data centre, eventually with passive equipment or fully operational service) can be offered. Estonia is for example the first country putting their data embassy in Luxembourg.

 

PM of Luxembourg, Xavier Bettel arrives for a summit of European Union leaders in Brussels, Belgium. Credit – Alexandros Michailidis Shutterstock.com

Does the government have any plans to step up its support for the data centre industry? For example, specific regulation, fast track on planning applications, different taxes.

It is not about taxes, it is about creating an environment whereby the industry can flourish by putting in place new initiatives Besides the investment we’ve made ourselves with the Luxconnect initiative, we create the environment in which the data centre industry can flourish.

The European Commission proposed in January 2018 to establish the headquarters of the EuroHPC Joint Undertaking in Luxembourg.

Luxembourg is now creating a national HPC-Big Data Competence Center. Luxembourg’s ambition is to simplify access to HPC-big data computing capacity for SME’s.

Another initiative of my Government has been the creation of Infrachain, a privately run, publicly supported non-profit organization dedicated to accelerate the adoption of blockchain technology. As most of the EU countries we have 4G available throughout the country via multiple mobile operators.

We further have 2 LPWAN operational for national IoT applications development. Luxembourg will deploy 5G as next infrastructure move to facilitate the creation of a world-class digital economy.

5G will complete our digital infrastructure to enable smart cities, IoT and other applications relying on ultra-high latency or high reliability. The amount of data to be processed will further increase the need for highly performant data centres.

 

Can you explain the thinking behind Infrachain a bit further? How is this going to benefit Luxembourg and what is the delivery timeframe of specific goals/results?

It is a truly European initiative launched out of Luxembourg and is the first trusted community blockchain platform in the world.

The process of building up the initiative happened very fast since all the actors involved identified blockchain technology as a crucial element for the local ecosystem.

Keeping blockchain’s global potential in mind, they set up the basics to work on a platform, both in terms of community and technology, capable of leapfrogging the adoption curve of blockchain in Luxembourg’s vibrant banking and fintech environment.

However, they explicitly did not target only financial services, as blockchain’s potential is much broader than this. After an astounding growth of the community itself, the harder part, meaning the operational blockchain platform, is set to be ready by Q4 of this year.

 

Built on blockchain technology are cryptocurrencies. There are some proofs-of-concept that are now trying to create cryptocurrencies for specific industries, for instance, telecommunications. Do you envision the use of cryptocurrencies nation/ continent wide? Can Luxembourg be one of the first countries to make a leap here?

As you know, cryptocurrencies have had a turbulent start and the space is still filled with uncertainty and risk. However, I do not see cryptocurrencies disappearing.

In Luxembourg, we have indeed been innovative in this space and a few of the biggest cryptocurrency exchanges are regulated in Luxembourg.

It is still too soon to say how the public sector can use cryptocurrencies in the public’s service but I have no doubt that we will be among those nations that are willing to make life easier for our citizens by using an innovative blockchain solution.