"We see ourselves as an integrated communications provider, way beyond mobile, although that is of course our DNA,” says Albert Hitchcock, CIO of Vodafone Group Services.
Think Vodafone and many naturally think of mobile telecommunications, but just as Vodafone has outgrown an office above a curry shop in Newbury to take over an entire campus on the outskirts of the Berkshire town, telecommunications can no longer be divided into mobile and fixed.
Communications sprawls across enterprises, lives and nations and its future growth is exponential, and so Vodafone is today a global leader in communications, if best known for non-fixed-line services.
“We are not just mobile now, we are moving into being a complete end-to-end provider, offering DSL, fixed line, broadband and enterprise offerings,” Hitchcock says.
Vodafone has 398 million customers around the world, equity in 30 countries and partnerships in a further 40, which puts a Vodafone network of one form or another in five continents.
In India Vodafone has a significant fixed-line and fibre network.
The emerging economy has been significant in Vodafone’s recent history, as the company operates a joint venture that constructs base station towers for mobile networks.
Hitchcock says it learnt a lot of lessons in its history as a mobile trailblazer that have shaped the way it moves into markets and deploys its infrastructure and technology.
That history and brand reputation mean Vodafone is a popular partner for networks organisations around the world.
“Vodafone has a lot of depth of knowledge and in the firm there is a lot of understanding of how you build efficient networks, work with suppliers and use intellectual property,” he says.
With size and globalisation comes complexity and criticism, to which Vodafone hasn’t been immune.
Of late the company has been caught up in tax avoidance protests following accusations that it places its profits in a Luxembourg company that was set up during the acquisition of German telecoms firm Mannesmann.
Vodafone has already paid £1.25bn to HMRC after a long legal battle with the tax collection agency, but critics claim Vodafone has avoided a £6bn tax bill following the settlement.
Overseas Vodafone shut down its voice and data services in Egypt at the request of former leader Hosni Mubarak, and was criticised heavily by backers of the Arab Spring and UK newspapers, but the company pointed out that it is obliged by local law to do as requested by the national leader.
In recent months there has been speculation that Vodafone will acquire ailing fellow UK-based networks giant Cable & Wireless Worldwide.
For Hitchcock the pressures of an organisation this size is not political, but technical.
“Tablet PCs, entertainment devices, machine-to-machine technology, SIM-based automation in cars, and vending machines means there will be billions of interactions on our networks. Mobile networks will be at the heart of this and it is fast evolving,” he says of the challenges facing the technology teams at Vodafone.
“Network technology is not just about throwing more equipment at it. Traffic is changing and 60 per cent of it is video so as an organisation we need to look closely at traffic management techniques and at ways to make the network more efficient.”
As well as improving the infrastructure behind the service, Hitchcock and his IT teams are key to customer retention strategies at Vodafone.
“In India we have 140 million customers, which means the customer experience becomes much more important. So customer decision technology which predicts churn is a key strategic move we are making.
“There will always be pressure from regulators and customers and that will rely on us in IT to have to be even more efficient. We are almost a utility as the network, so the underlying infrastructure has to be very efficient and to do that we need to leverage scale,” he says of the role’s pressures.
Vodafone’s Group CTO Steve Pussey is on the board of directors and owns the technology strategy, Hitchcock says.
“In service providers the majority of the spend is on networks – it dominates the capex,” he explains.
As global CIO, Hitchcock is responsible for the IT strategy and the delivery of IT across the Vodafone Group.