Our mobile and fixed data networks have come a long way. And Vodafone UK CTO Jorge Fernandes has been there to see things evolve at every step. Here he reveals just how far we've come...

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You love using the internet on your phone, right? And we bet that how much you use it and why has changed hugely over the past few years too. What you may not know is what’s happened, and continues to go on, in the background so that our network is in the best shape to give you the best experience of the internet.

So when we got a chance to sit down with Jorge Fernandes, Vodafone UK’s Chief Technology Officer and the man responsible for making the network tick – now and in the future – we took the opportunity to pick his brains. How do networks evolve? And what has he got his eye on for the future? Read onto find out…

“We were literally building the internet”

jorge“Before joining Vodafone I was working for a company that was literally building the infrastructure to run the internet on. Before the internet was the amazing thing it’s now become, I was involved in building it, but back then nobody would have guessed at how it was all going to take off. Back in 1998 in Germany we were building what was then the largest national data network in Europe, and only 2% of its capacity was being used – I remember wondering why we’d even bothered to build such a large network!

“Of course in today’s terms, that network wouldn’t serve everyone’s needs at all – it’d need to be a hundred times bigger than it was back then, which shows the extent of the growth of the internet.”

Nowadays our data network is a huge part of what makes our services tick, but it was completely new ground back then:

“A lot of the things we’re doing now are very familiar to me because when I first joined Vodafone, I joined very much on the back of the idea that the future would be all about data. I remember sitting down with my colleagues at the time and telling them that. I remember the knowing smiles from traditional telecoms guys who had built the original mobile networks – to them, it wasn’t seen as something that would happen at all.”

Ok, so that’s Jorge’s history covered off. But what does his role as CTO involve now? The short answer is: an awful lot. And the longer answer?

“I have the responsibility for all of our technology,” he begins, “which means everything that is technology-enabled, from the IT systems, to the network infrastructure, including things like towers and masts and the core infrastructure, right through to future projects like the TV service we’ve talked about launching in the near future.”

With all that on the go, we were keen to figure out what challenges Jorge faces on a daily basis. As we already know from our talks with network experts like Dr Rob Matthews, running and improving mobile and fixed networks isn’t easy…

“First of all it’s important to understand what our networks are used for,” Jorge says., “If you think about what our different networks actually do, we’re as likely to be the connection you use to post on Facebook as we are to providing the critical infrastructure to support the UK economy, whether it’s enabling the management of power grids or keeping radio and TV broadcasts connected around the UK – we provide all that.”

“So that’s what it does, but in terms of what it means to support it? First of all, we think of the network not in terms of the infrastructure but how it affects our customers and how everything we do to it has a real impact on people.

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“Imagine a very small network outage of five seconds, for example. It might seem like a short period of time, but if your network is providing the backbone for a radio broadcast, five seconds of dead air is very noticeable. We have thousands of improvement and optimisation activities every day across the network to prevent these types of outages, so it’s critical that our teams don’t see the equipment as an abstract piece of technology that they’re working on, and understand that at the other end of that tech is a real customer who relies on that technology to run their business.

“I suspect that our customers don’t see technology in the same way that we do,” Jorge adds, “and neither should they. You want to send messages, make calls and access your emails – you shouldn’t have to think about how it all comes together. When I send an email to someone on the other side of the world, how does that message get there? And what’s the tech that allows that piece of electronic information to travel all that way in a fraction of a second? You don’t need to know that. You only need to know that it’s reliable – and be sure that it’ll work.”

And, in a nutshell, making sure that’s the case is what Jorge’s job is all about.

“History has taught us is not to make any assumptions”

So what’s the obvious question to ask a man of Jorge’s experience? Simple: How have things changed, and how will they continue to change?

“If I think about how things have changed since over the last decade, then it’s the launch of Apple’s iPhone that really made the biggest difference,” he tells us. “Before that we were building our voice network with data almost as an aside. Voice had evolved to a point, but with the launch of iPhone, and iPhone 3G in particular, the market totally changed.

“That’s when the smartphone revolution began, and it completely transformed user behaviours. If you think about the way that you consume content today, it’s nothing like back then. In 2007 you would have a mobile phone and a laptop or desktop computer and things like movies, images and websites would be designed for and consumed on that desktop or laptop and you’d mostly use your mobile phone for voice calls and texts. All that’s changed.

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“And of course,” he adds, “that brought a massive challenge to the networks. We’ve seen the demand for data increase exponentially from then on.” And Jorge doesn’t see that slowing anytime soon: “The demand for data is going to continue to increase,” he reveals. “With the arrival of 4G it just shot up again, thanks to the difference it makes to activities such as consuming video and the resulting increase in data usage that drives.

“And I think that will continue to grow as 4G still has a long way to evolve. You could theoretically assume that video quality on a 6-inch display will continue to improve with new tech such as 4K screens, so you would also expect to see a higher average of data use per customer as they watch more of these higher quality videos on their smartphones.

“But the one thing that history has taught us”, Jorge says in closing, “is not to make any assumptions – and that’s why we’ll always focus on giving you the best experience now, in the present, but also keep one eye on the future, to anticipate and create the services you want.”

To find out what Jorge will say with confidence about tomorrow’s mobile tech, stay tuned to Vodafone Social.

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