LIVE FROM VODAFONE FUTURE READY 2018, NEWBURY, UK: Nick Jeffery, CEO of Vodafone UK (pictured), talked up the importance of digital infrastructure in unlocking the country’s potential, as the company revealed updates around its customer service, enterprise and network operations.

Stating that “we have very much got our mojo back”, the executive said “with Brexit looming, there never has been a greater need to close the productivity gap and let the UK compete on [the] world stage.”

Vodafone emphasised Jeffery’s point by conducting what it said is “the UK’s first live holographic call using 5G technology”, linking its UK headquarters and Manchester. “Unquestionably, having a world class digital infrastructure is key to unlocking the full potential of the UK,” the CEO emphasised.

With Vodafone set to trial 5G in seven UK cities, Manchester will be “the very first to go live”. This is supported by the opening of a digital innovation hub in MediaCity (located in the city), giving access to a mix of technology, with plans to rollout more across the country in coming years.

The operator is working towards a commercial 5G launch in 2019 and said it aims to have 1,000 sites in operation by 2020.

Customer service
Neil Blagden, director of digital and commercial operations, said while the operator has not always got customer service right, it has now dramatically changed to improve its performance.

He showcased an implementation of voice recognition to identify customers, enabling them to access support without the need to use a PIN, and the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to learn from customers and anticipate issues. Citing proactive support given to upgrading customers, who are faced with more complex bills due to different service periods, he said calls to service centres were reduced by 25 per cent, while offering a “vastly improved customer experience”.

Vodafone touted improved capabilities for its Tobi chatbot, which now supports 32 end-to-end authenticated customer transactions without human involvement. It will be deployed in-app, in stores and to support customer service agents, while also being used internally for HR and IT support.

But the importance of humans was also highlighted: “As the use of AI increases, for us the human touch becomes more important. So could Tobi handle all queries? Yes, in time he certainly could. But the bigger question is do we want him to, and the answer is no. Because there are some calls that will always need a human touch, and our customers should have the opportunity to talk to our people directly.”

Blagden flagged a role for “highly specialised, fully empowered” agents who can work end-to-end with customers. There will also be agents who “reskill to become digital and AI developers of the future”, a process which is already underway. “We strongly believe the best developers will come from the frontline,” he said.

Business users
Enterprise director Anne Sheehan said 82 per cent of businesses believe digital transformation is a priority and that they will invest, with 58 per cent stating it is vital to embrace IoT technologies in order to be successful.

“We have a super mobile and fixed network, and we are one of the few players in the UK market who can offer truly converged solutions. But today we are redefining the definition of convergence to be mobile, fixed and IoT, and as we are the global leader in IoT, this is our secret sauce,” she said.

Sheehan outlined new propositions including a “self optimising tariff”, which automatically moves customers to the plan most effective for them; its Gigacube mobile Wi-Fi device to provide immediate connectivity for up to 20 users; and the use of software defined networking to give customers control of their network.

Network evolution
Ahead of the launch of 5G services, Vodafone also highlighted the work it is doing to transform its core network. Called RedStream, the company is now running a mix of home broadband, mobile, IoT and businesss services over a single, all fibre network. CTO Scott Petty stated the company is “busy migrating all of our enterprise services”.

“This year more than 2,000 customers and 18,000 circuits will migrate from older technologies on the new RedStream network,” he continued.

The evolution has allowed Vodafone to phase-out old technologies: “We have already turned off 15 legacy network services, we will achieve 20 this year, and the final 15 next year. We have decommissioned 128 IT applications and retired 85 products,” Petty said. “As we tidy up all of this old technology, it has a massive impact on our energy footprint, a massive impact on our agility and speed, and it allows us to offer more cost-effective services on modern infrastructure to both our home and enterprise customers.”

With Vodafone moving toward the launch of 5G services, the CTO also highlighted the importance of supporting rural areas beyond the main cities: Cornwall and the Lake District will receive coverage in the same timeframe.

“We feel that there are opportunities to validate some of the technologies around 5G, such as IoT in agriculture or fixed wireless access for people who can’t get fibre, and we’ve selected rural areas where we can see through our own traffic growth there is need and demand,” Petty explained.

Jeffery added: “We believe there is a great deal of economic value to unlock and digital potential to fulfil outside of cities as well.”