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The crucial role of invisible infrastructures

One of Galileo’s satellites providing positioning data. Image credit: REX

Most of the infrastructures we implicitly rely on, every single day, are below our level of perception. Be it roads, logistics bringing foods to the department store we use or telecommunications, the fade below our perception radar, unless they become unavailable or don’t work as they are supposed to do. Just imagine other kinds of infrastructures, like the ones providing the localisation data, GPS, Galileo (Europe), GLONASS  (Russia) and BeiDou (China).

The unavailability of Galileo for a whole week, starting on July 11th, is ringing a bell on our dependence on these infrastructures. Galileo, is the European positioning system providing localisation through 26 satellites that started operation in 2016. It is still operating in a trial mode, although after three years of operation it is being used by some 100 million devices. These devices also connect to GPS, the older positioning system (based on 32 satellites) that offer potentially a lower precision (however a good part of the precision depends on the receiver and more and more receivers are using two or more positioning systems to increase the overall precision). A crucial part of the positioning systems is the ground stations that have to ensure the positions of all satellites is known with absolute precision. This is the part that, apparently, failed on July 11th 2019 thus creating a global outage of Galileo. Luckily, since all Galileo based devices also include GPS there were no problem at the application level. The Galileo system was able to report the malfunction to all devices and they automatically switched to GPS. The worst that can happen to a positioning system is not that it stops working bat that it provides incorrect positions to unaware devices. That was not the case in this outage.

When reading this news I started to reflect on the many infrastructures that are beyond our perception and that are so vital to our life. Think about the mess when a cloud service that provides airlines with the data of their traveller fails. All traffic comes to a stop. Airlines no longer have the capability to manage check in without computers. The critical role of infrastructures has pointed some to predict the the future wars will take place in the cyberspace.

The Digital Transformation is creating new invisible infrastructures at the data level. Communications already tends to shift to the cyberspace, most of communications are data exchange among computers in and among clouds, human communications is a fragment of the total communications.

In the coming decade intelligence is likely to become an infrastructure as well. Be prepared for IAAS, Intelligence As A Service, where intelligence is created in the cyberspace by leveraging on data and made accessible on demand.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.