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Interview: Vodafone CTO juggles legacy network and cutting-edge technology

Vodafone UK chief technology officer Jorge Fernandes talks legacy networks, digitisation and how he is positioning the operator to lead in the mobile-enabled future

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Mobile networking

“I joined Vodafone from Cisco, really to manage the transformation to internet protocol (IP), and I remember meeting my colleagues at Vodafone and saying ‘guys, the future is all IP’ and being laughed at,” says Jorge Fernandes, UK CTO at Vodafone, as he reflects on 15 years at the mobile operator.

Steeped in both computing and networking, Fernandes started his career working with mainframes before moving to Cisco as an IBM specialist in the late 1990s.

“This was a time when Cisco was entering the IBM space and challenging the IBM networking environments,” he tells  Computer Weekly, “moving from systems network architecture (SNA) and synchronous data link control (SDLC) to TCP/IP, so it was that transition that I picked up and it went from there.”

Fernandes joined Vodafone in 2002 and has moved around the company since then, spending time in its engineering and operation functions, as well as serving as CTO in Portugal and Turkey prior to taking up the UK post in 2015.

Of course, the advent of TCP/IP was a big deal in the 1990s, but in the past decade and a half, the rate of transformation at the heart of the network has accelerated to breakneck speed, and managing the twin demands of running internal IT and customer-facing networks for a major telco keeps Fernandes busier than many of his peers.

“I have responsibility for both IT and networks, and I also have a large managed services organisation. I therefore always try to think from the customer perspective first, and that is where I start with the team,” he says. “Whenever I talk to my team about whatever we do as a business and what matters, we think about the customers.”

Besides users of its domestic mobile and broadband services, Vodafone also designs, builds, deploys and manages large-scale infrastructure projects for some of the biggest UK enterprises, from public sector to energy to financial services among many others.

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“Basically the infrastructure and the technology we provide underpins large parts of the UK economy, so failure does not just have huge impact on a particular customer but also on the economy, so I always have that in the back of my mind, and it’s something I continuously drum into my team – we need to be very sharp and on our toes all the time,” says Fernandes.

“We see currently, in the mobile space alone, data growth in London of around 1.7% per week – we’re talking a doubling of data use in the city every year, so this puts a lot of pressure on the underlying infrastructure, and keeping up with this growth is not easy because customers have become used to having a good quality service everywhere – whether voice or data – and this requires continuous investment and modernisation,” he says.

Change for a digital world

Besides network performance, one of the biggest pressures on Vodafone’s teams is the ongoing provision of stable and predictable systems to manage mission-critical billing and customer relationship management (CRM) systems for its users.

There has also been a massive diversification of channels through which users can contact Vodafone, which is also increasingly challenging Fernandes’ teams. Customers expect and require to be able to interface with the operator through multiple means and on multiple devices.

“For us, the challenge is being able to decouple the large, mission-critical IT systems, such as your standard OSS/BSS systems, from these digital interfaces that customers use,” says Fernandes.

Fernandes is actively positioning Vodafone at the cutting edge when it comes to innovation in customer services both internally and externally. Since December 2016, the employees have been able to take advantage of an artificial intelligence (AI) driven desktop support system, which uses chatbots for IT support requests, and is currently able to solve about 30% of the problems it encounters.

“About 30% of our total interaction with customers is already through chat, so we’re taking advantage of that to launch AI as an initial interface to talk to customers”

Jorge Fernandes, Vodafone

Meanwhile, a chatbot named Toby is currently actively talking to Vodafone’s customers. “About 30% of our total interaction with customers in call centres today is already through chat, so we’re taking advantage of that to launch AI as an initial interface to talk to customers,” says Fernandes. “We make it very clear it’s Toby they are talking to – we’re not trying to mislead the customer into thinking they’re talking to a human.”

Today, Toby is still learning, and specialises mostly in information provision – such as telling customers how they can use their devices abroad, for example – rather than active problem solving, but Vodafone hopes to begin to increase its capabilities over time.

The digitisation of Vodafone’s business processes is also changing the way the company goes about developing IT; while it maintains the more recognised waterfall development system internally, Fernandes has been moving to adopt agile development operations practices, too.

“We’re changing not just from a technology point of view but also from a business point of view, so you’re bringing in the business, you’re bringing in the user experience designers, and setting out teams to build technology where the business silo is sitting down with the technologists around the table, solving solutions and building new products,” he says.

As a result of this, Vodafone is now undergoing massive cultural change internally. Having spent three decades running networks based on predictable, steadily evolving technology and well-established interfaces and standards, the advent of software-based, virtualised networks and the increasing importance of developers in this world is something that, by Fernandes’ own admission, the operator has not yet worked out.

“I think there will be a new generation of technologists that will be able to embrace these two worlds,” he says. “In a sense, the guys that are coming from the IT environment have an advantage because essentially IT is coming to the networks rather than the other way around.”

The future of network provision

In the past decade, Vodafone has evolved from being a mobile company that sold voice and minutes, to an internet company that sold data services, and now it is transitioning into more of a fixed broadband and media business.

“The volume of data that goes through on our consumer broadband service has overtaken mobile and it’s largely media services – Netflix, Amazon Prime, and so on,” he says.

“We have had to transition from being a company that largely relied on the services provided by the likes of BT to – through the acquisition of Cable & Wireless – having a large broadband capability across the country.”

To meet this explosion in data demand across the UK, Vodafone will continue to invest in both innovative mobile delivery technology – such as massive MIMO (multiple input, multiple output) – as well as underlying fixed fibre infrastructure, an area where Fernandes believes the UK business is still behind the curve.

“Compare where we are to other European countries, we sell fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) where we have the ability to turn a service around in 24 hours and provide 100Mbps all the way up to 1Gbps.

“That’s the future that we need to have in the UK; we need to be competitive to that level and the government is, I think, saying the right things – but we are still strong believers in the structural separation of BT and Openreach,” he says.

“We need to see not just the right words from government but the right incentives, the right investment and also the right regulation going hand in hand with what they’re saying, and I just don’t see us going fast enough at the moment.”

Lobbying Westminster on regulation

Beyond structural separation of BT and Openreach – which may still be on the cards but is now unlikely in the short-term unless the legal separation of the two businesses is somehow bungled – Fernandes is lobbying Westminster on a number of areas of regulation.

Chief among these are more clarity on ease of access to Openreach’s passive infrastructure where needed, and changes to planning regulations to make it easier for companies such as Vodafone to deploy their own infrastructure, both mobile and fixed. This includes taller masts – a few feet here and there can make all the difference to network quality.

In the next couple of years, preparations for the deployment of the first full 5G mobile networks will begin in earnest, but this is one area where Fernandes is taking a more relaxed attitude.

“I think 2020 is realistic [for 5G] but to be honest I’m not in a tremendous hurry to get there. It’s more important that we get the tech right. It would be a pity if we made the same mistakes that were made in 3G, where we rushed into deploying a new network,” he says.

The evolution into 5G

Helpfully, virtually everybody – including Fernandes – now agrees 4G will evolve into 5G in a similar fashion to how 3G evolved into 4G via high speed packet access (HSPA) technology.

“We are seeing the same with 4G – we see more and more carrier aggregation, we have been refarming spectrum, all these are evolutions on 4G that will allow customers to experience 5G-like services before 5G is delivered.

“5G initially will be the same network core, and we’ll see an extension of current business models, and higher throughput and lower latency, but it won’t be a big change in the industry. The second release of 5G will be much more transformational,” he says.

So who will be the first to deploy a 5G service in the UK in the next few years? EE managed to go to market first with 4G. “No,” concludes Fernandes, shaking his head. “We are.”

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