Delegates and partners heard how Vodafone is preparing itself for a new age of technology
“I think you can see this technology really could change the way we work, the way we interact, the whole set of services.”
With these words, Vodafone chief technology officer Scott Petty kicked off the Vodafone Future Ready event at its Newbury HQ on September 20 in front of around 100 analysts and partners.
“We’re investing in the next phase of holographic technology, leveraging the low latency of 5G to bring a whole new experience where you can really interact with a person as if they’re there with you.”
Vodafone gave the crowd an impressive glimpse into the future with a 5G holographic call between England women’s football captain Steph Houghton and an 11-year-old fan that brought us remarkably close to the opening scenes from the first Star Wars movie.
“This is a brilliant example of how 5G technology can bridge the gap between the sports stars and how they interact with their fans; imagine having a sports star in your own living room,” said Petty.
“Think about this in a business or medical contact context: a doctor with their patient or Vodafone’s chief financial officer doing a budget review in our Paddington office to us, here in Newbury, through a holographic call.”
Cue nervous laughter.
With 5G availability just months away, Vodafone used the event as a showcase of current technology and what we can expect from the network in the future.
As well as 5G wonder-stuff, the event also gave Vodafone partners a chance to show their wares.
MVNO brand VOXI had a stand as, did a number of companies showing off a plethora of IoT products that indicate how Vodafone perceives the direction of IoT.
Interactive dressing room mirrors, sensors for cows and health monitoring apps were all presented and demonstrated.
Vodafone CEO Nick Jeffery took the stage to reveal just how serious Vodafone was about 5G and IoT.
“After two years of tireless work and more than £2 billion of investment in the UK, Vodafone has got its mojo back.”
He promised a further £2 billion of investment over the next two years.
With a tacit nod to the customer billing problems that afflicted the network Jeffery added: “We have replaced our IT and billing systems and we are now offering our best-ever billing performance.
“Our dropped calls ratio and call set-up times equal that of any of the best in the world. According to Ofcom we have the best geographic coverage of any network in the UK. We will continue to improve this over the years to come.”
Jeffery’s overview was of a network now embracing all the components around mobile. “Our Internet of Things connects everything from cars to coffee to cows and millions of other things.
“We have 17 million connected devices around the world connected to the Vodafone network. The UK is the largest market for IoT and is growing very fast.”
Jeffrey spoke of growth in market share and claimed customer satisfaction metrics had improved to their best-ever level.
It was then the turn of Vodafone enterprise director Anne Sheehan to emphasise how Vodafone was “redefining convergence to be mobile, fixed and IoT”.
“Vodafone is the global leader when it comes to the Internet of Things. It is our secret sauce when it comes to connecting UK businesses to people, places and things.
“We have been the first network in the UK to launch a narrowband IoT network. This will give UK businesses access to 5G capability a year before the rest of the market.”
Sheehan spoke of the progress that Vodafone has seen over the last year, claiming that the network is outperforming its rivals in the enterprise market.
She claimed the enterprise division makes up half of Vodafone UK’s total revenues, with brands like Aston Martin, Domino’s and Burberry now established Vodafone clients along with two-thirds of the top 100 companies in the FTSE 100.
Sheehan explained how the enterprise division sees its involvement with UK business.
“UK businesses have a healthy appetite for transformation. We have spoken to over 2,000 companies across the UK market about the impact digital transformation will have on their business.
“We have found UK businesses are really optimistic about the opportunities that are ahead.
“Eighty-two per cent of businesses say that digital transformation is an investment priority, while 58 per cent agree it is vital to embrace IoT technologies in order to be successful.”
As well as IoT investment, Vodafone says it is improving its infrastructure with new initiatives, such as GigaCube. This is a Huawei WiFi router, a portable hotspot capable of 300Mbps speeds and multiple connections.
As well as bolstering the ability to connect, the enterprise division has made changes to the benefits of working with Vodafone intended to move the customer relationship beyond just selling data and voice minutes.
Small businesses will have the opportunity to receive a range of services under one offering. Companies can receive HR or legal advice, PayPal devices and a phone replacement service that claims to be able to deliver a new device to the user within four hours.
“This is a market-leading bundle and is unique in the UK because it goes beyond traditional minutes, text and data.
“There are a range of different business services for our partners and companies can choose what they want to take advantage of in a pick-and-mix fashion.”
Sheehan said changes in the billing process will also mean that all businesses will only be charged for the minutes, texts and data that each account uses.
She said: “The business optimiser is, once again, a UK first and we believe it’s a game changer. By automatically optimising the tariff for every employee, every month, we will shift the market from a one-size-fits-all to a personalised service.”
As well as the enterprise world, Vodafone spoke of improvements in service in the consumer sphere.
Nick Jeffery and chief operating officer Neil Blagden admitted that Vodafone has not been famous for great customer service in recent years.
“When it comes to customer service we haven’t always got it right. But over the last two years we have dramatically changed and I am pleased to report that we are back and taking customer service to the next level,” said Blagden.
He reckoned Vodafone customers now rate the service they receive as better than it’s ever been.
He outlined Vodafone’s renewed interest in artificial intelligence and biometrics in an ambition to make its customer contact centres “100 per cent digital”.
“We want to give enterprise and consumer customers every opportunity to interact with us digitally. We’ve increased the number of channels our customers can use. Now they can go through chatbots, the Vodafone app, smart assistants and, eventually, smart TV.”
Blagden said Vodafone has invested over £8 million bringing advanced AI and voice recognition technology to the centres so customers can voice-navigate their way through security checks.
Voice biometric software will mean that the customer’s voice becomes their password, and he explained how Vodafone is using artificial intelligence to improve the customer experience and anticipate service issues before they arise.
“Last month we launched one of the world’s first AI proactive care campaigns. A main frustration for customers is an unexpected bill. For example, if they upgrade mid-month, the bill will be for a longer period, typically six weeks instead of four. Understandably, they query that.
“So we launched the campaign to send 55,000 customers a text that explained the bill and gave them a way to get in contact. That first campaign has reduced enquiries by 25 per cent.”
As well as the investment in voice biometrics, Vodafone has also made several improvements to its chatbot, which it calls “TOBi”.
The chatbot can handle 32 end-to-end transactions and will also be installed into Vodafone’s systems to assist employees in their HR and IT enquiries.
Blagden added: “When it started last year TOBi was quite basic. It could handle simple queries but then handed you over to a customer service agent.
“But he’s a quick learner and soon you’ll see him in the app, he’ll be in our stores, he’ll be behind the scenes helping our agents when taking calls that require the human touch.
“With all the great feedback we’ve decided to take him to a lot more places and he’s even gone global and is recognised as one of the world’s leading customer service chat bots.”
Vodafone chief technical officer Scott Petty announced that the new Red Stream network is now carrying 2G, 3G and 4G traffic, home broadband and fixed line service and will soon take on 5G traffic too.
Because 5G reduces latency (the time it takes for data to reach a device), it allows new applications to be built.
An example was the hologram call which astounded delegates with its display. Augmented and reality tech through 5G results in quicker speeds and a true-to-life experience.
“Our Red Stream core network is a fully integrated voice, data and optical IoT network that offers gigabit-per-second wavelengths. It gives us the ability to cope with the massive amount of data consumption that we are expecting to see over the coming years, as we launch our services particularly around 5G.
“Currently the latency that our consumers experience is around 50 to 60 milliseconds With 5G that will come down to well below 10 milliseconds. That opens up new opportunities for ultra high-definition content and immersive experiences as we deliver more video content to the device.”
Improvements in the network capability will bring about ways the technology can improve lives.
“The benefit of 5G is the Internet of Things on a massive scale and the ability to connect hundreds of millions of devices to a cellular network.
“In a 4G context, we can only connect small numbers of devices to any given base station.
With 5G, the ability to connect to hundreds of thousands of devices opens up a whole new set of sensors using low-data, low-speed technologies like narrowband IoT, such as allowing automated vehicles to communicate and provide amazing in-car experiences.”
However, Petty did acknowledge that 5G is still in its infancy and that earliest availability for 5G will come within the next 12 months, dependent on the development of 5G-enabled devices. He hinted at these being announced at Mobile World Congress next year.
Vodafone is testing 5G at around 60 sites in seven cities, including London, Manchester and Liverpool, as well as in Cornwall and the Lake District.
Those cities will receive 5G by the middle of next year. Vodafone is planning to increase the number of 5G sites to ore than 1,000 as the take-up of 5G grows.
Petty said tests are still needed before the 5G network can launch.
“Its easy to get a 5G app to work in the lab. But what happens in the real world when it’s snowing or windy, or trees get in the way? Will we still get the performance that we need?
“Having the live trials is crucial for us to be ready to launch next year as 5G devices arrive.
Jeffery summed up the day and the network’s aspirations:
“Over the next two years you will see a Vodafone with digital at its heart. From the Vodafone that made the first mobile call, it’s a Vodafone that is leading in customer service, next-generation technology and getting our customers ready for a future of speed, reliability and innovation.”