December 24, 2013, 5:03 AM — Belgium's card payment network failed on Monday night, leaving millions of Belgians unable to pay at stores or to withdraw cash from ATMs and self-service terminals inside banks.
Atos subsidiary Worldline, operator of Belgium's Bancontact-Mister Cash payment network, reported on its website that it was difficult for cardholders throughout the country to make payments or withdrawals from around 4 p.m. local time on Monday. Local media reported long lines to make cardless withdrawals at bank counters.
Worldline put its business continuity plan into effect, and payment traffic began to recover from 5.15 p.m., returning to near-normal levels from 6.30 p.m., the company said in a statement.
The network went down again for 30 minutes shortly after midnight on Tuesday, but this time the outage was planned as Worldline staff set about updating the computer system as part of their recovery plan, a later statement said.
Attempts to contact a Worldline spokesman for further details of the recovery procedure were unsuccessful. His voicemail directed callers to the company's website for information about the payment problems.
The company apologized for the failure and said it was doing all it could to maintain the service.
The outage came just two days after the Belgian payment network celebrated its busiest ever day, processing 5,499,709 electronic payments on Saturday. The previous record, of 5,314,820 transactions, was set on Dec. 22, 2012, also a Saturday.
There are 15 million Bancontact-Mister Cash payment cards in circulation in Belgium according to the company's website. The country had a population of 11.1 million in January, according to the Belgian government's statistical agency.
Worldline said Sunday that at peak times it was processing over 10,000 transactions per minute, a little short of its previous record of 11,854 per minute at 11.33 a.m. on Dec. 24, 2012. It said it expected to set a further record on Tuesday. Belgians will undoubtedly be ready to spend following Monday's frustrations, but whether the Worldline network will be up to the challenge so soon after the recovery efforts remains to be seen.
Ironically, in its statement on Sunday about the transaction records, Worldline boasted that "Belgium's payment traffic is among the most stable in the world. This period of intense activity has once again passed without a single incident."
Atos will no doubt be disappointed by the incident: In February it announced plans to carve out its global payment and transactional activities into a separate management structure to improve their visibility. They have been operating under the Worldline brand in 17 countries since July 1.