Belgian national research and education network Belnet celebrates 30th anniversary

Brussels, 8 December 2023 – Belnet, the IT partner for research, education and public services is celebrating its 30th anniversary. The federal government organization, whose mission is to stimulate the deployment of the knowledge and information society, contribute to the quality of higher education and support the further development of the digital government, was founded in 1993. At that time, it had three employees and 27 connected institutions.

Today, with around 80 employees, 300+ connected institutions and 865,000+ end users, Belnet is a major driver of scientific and societal progress in our country. In addition to that, BNIX, the Belgian Internet ‘roundabout’ founded and managed by Belnet, regulates a large part of the private and professional Internet traffic in our country.

On this 30th anniversary, Belnet reflects on its increasingly important role for both its community (governments and research & educational institutions) and Belgian society as a whole, and looks back on three decades of technological (r)evolution.

Belnet in 2023: government service with a key role in society

Although Belnet mainly operates behind the scenes, it has a huge impact on the daily lives of nearly every Belgian - directly or indirectly. The following information speaks volumes: 

  • over 650,000 students, teachers, researchers and administrative staff use Belnet services in 147 colleges, universities, research centres, hospitals and federal scientific institutions. One of the best-known services in this domain is eduroam, which provides students and researchers with secure Wi-Fi access worldwide. 
  • more than 215,000 employees, working for more than 100 federal government agencies and public sector organizations rely on the Belnet network to do their jobs for the Belgian people.
  • various e-gov services (such as My eBox, TaxOnWeb and MyPension) and online applications are made available to Belgian inhabitants and businesses via the Belnet network.
  • A large part of the internet traffic sent and received by businesses (including ISPs such as Proximus and content providers such as Netflix) and people in Belgium passes through BNIX - the 'roundabout' of the Belgian internet founded and managed by Belnet.

In addition, Belnet is closely involved in key European organizations and initiatives. Some examples:

  • As the mandated organization of the EOSC Association, Belnet facilitates the shift towards open science. By making data more findable and accessible, we increase the efficiency and impact of research. Making results available to other institutions is very important, for example to contain pandemics like COVID quickly and efficiently.
  • As part of the BeQCI consortium, Belnet is a key link in the rollout of a Belgian quantum communications network destined to, among other things, enable unbreakable encryption of vital confidential messages. 
  • Belnet is connected to the pan-European research network GÉANT, which interconnects 40 NRENs and serves 50 million users across 10,000 organizations in Europe.

"Working for such a key organization is very fulfilling for both the team and myself," says Dirk Haex. The managing director joined Belnet in 2003 as Senior Engineer and in the twenty years that he’s been with Belnet, he has seen both the organization and its role evolve rapidly. "Belnet's core objectives have largely remained the same, but the ever-accelerating societal and technological changes have a major impact on how we achieve them and the challenges associated with them." 

"When Belnet was founded in 1993,  it was still purely as a research program within the Federal Science Policy," Dirk continues. "It then had 3 employees and 27 connected organizations. Back then, our network had a capacity of 64 kbit/s. Today, with 80 employees, we look after a community of some 309 organizations, we also carry out numerous other core tasks and we no longer express the capacity of our network in kilobit but in gigabit, times one million in other words." 

30 years of Belnet in a nutshell

Only two years after Belnet was founded in 1993 (see above), it co-founded ISPA. That Belgian Internet Service Providers Association is still active today, with Dirk Haex as one of the board members since 2023. Also in 1995, Belnet founds BNIX and joins forces with EuropaNET, the predecessor of the pan-European network for research and education GÉANT (more information on BNIX and GÉANT in the 'key role in society’ part above).

In 2002, Belnet also acquires government clients and develops FedMAN. This 'Federal Metropolitan Area Network' connects all central departments of the federal government of the Brussels region with each other and with the internet - with a high capacity and at a high speed.

In 2006, Belnet participates in the eduroam initiative. This 'educational roaming' offers students and researchers simple and secure access to their own network and those of other institutions connected to the Belnet network that offer eduroam. That same year also marks the start of a long-term partnership with the Walloon and Flemish governments, which improves access by higher education institutions to the Belnet network, through a very high-speed internet connection under advantageous conditions.

Three years later, the law adopted on May 6, 2009 significantly extends Belnet's responsibility: the organization is now also in charge of the development, operation and management of specific activities and telematic networks of public authorities, administrative offices and public institutions.

In 2017, Belnet becomes "service owner" of, and therefore both operationally and strategically the single point of contact for, the previously mentioned FedMAN. Three years later, the COVID-19 pandemic puts everyone, including Belnet, to the test. Research networks have become ever more crucial for the healthcare system at that point. And with almost everybody suddenly working from home, BNIX registers record traffic peaks – which the platform handles smoothly.

In the early 2020s, Belnet takes on important roles within various innovation projects, like EOSC Focus and BeQCI (see insert above), and also takes over the management of government WANs, which enables federal government departments (FPSs) to seamlessly connect their central locations with headquarters in Brussels over one single network. This brings major synergies and benefits to the federal governments.

"In order to ensure stability and innovativeness of our services towards our community, it’s essential that Belnet anticipates and contributes to certain evolutions", Dirk continues. "We’ve always done that in the past, and will continue to do so, for example around quantum communication, open science, cybersecurity and Artificial Intelligence. Moreover, our baseline services remain very important, including a highly stable, secure and high-performance connectivity portfolio, a complete and customizable range of Cloud solutions, various modules within the crucial Trust and Security pillar, and finally a specific and targeted range of services within the Identity, Mobility and Federation pillar."

"Apart from the satisfaction linked to Belnet’s societal role, I’m also extremely proud of the very dynamic environment bristling with talent that has enabled us to successfully fulfill that role for 30 years now. We are also very much looking ahead: in the next few months, Belnet will present a new strategy for 2025-29, including a new vision and renewed branding and website." 

Dirk Haex, General Director a.i. at Belnet

Huge added value

Belnet falls under the authority of the Federal Science Policy Service, for which Thomas Dermine (PS) is the State Secretary. Dermine assigned an important role to Belnet in the strategic plan for Federal Science Policy for 2022-2024, including that of open science facilitator. 

"The added value that Belnet has brought to our country and citizens over the past three decades is huge. Belgium’s strong reputation in areas such as scientific research, innovation, and high-quality higher education is, among other things, a result of the dedication of its entire team. A huge thank you to them and I wish them even more success in the future."

Thomas Dermine, State Secretary of the Federal Science Policy

Arnaud Vajda, Chairman of the Science Policy Public Service, adds: "Throughout its history, Belnet has evolved into a crucial partner for the Belgian R&E community and government services. It has continuously demonstrated the reliability of its services and the professionalism of its team over the years, even in difficult circumstances – for example when network access posed a particular challenge, take the ever-increasing threat of DDoS attacks for example. Belnet is also ready to face the challenges of tomorrow by continuously listening to its community and expanding its service portfolio, allowing it to anticipate the needs of the future."

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