Christchurch aftermath and the pathway to LTE

Part two of Q and A interview with Vodafone technology director Sandra Pickering

In the second part of Computerworld's Q and A interview with Vodafone technology director Sandra Pickering she discusses the technology challenges facing the telco.

Let’s talk about the Vodafone network. What are some of the challenges – is Christchurch uppermost in your mind?

Christchurch has been a huge challenge for us. I’ve been down there a number of times. I went down there immediately after the February earthquake and spent time with my team figuring out how we were going to recover and what we needed to do there.

The challenge with Christchurch is that until we know where the CBD, where business is going to land, it’s very difficult for us to plan the network - where we’re going to rebuild. We have been extensively rebuilding where we’ve lost coverage and putting new coverage in to accomodate business moving aruond to new areas.

We’ve been putting up new towers and adding additional capacity to the existing network. So we are doing a period of rebuilding but we won’t be able to finalise that until there is more certainty, hopefully the shaking stops.

Can you put some numbers around that? How many cell towers you had to replace, the cost of the network rebuild?

It’s a little bit commercially sensitive but I can tell you that we’re reinvesting millions and millions of dollars down there.

How many engineers were there when the quake happened in February?

We have a network operations centre in Christchurch where we base all of our technical staff and any one time in the region 15-20 engineers plus contractors.

Obviously that had to be boosted post-earthquake.

We sent people from Auckland and Wellington. I was down there myself helping to coorindinate activities. It became very basic, the earthquake — it was people first, customers second, network third. It was down to basics and helping rescue teams trying to locate cellphone signals and coverage and those things. It was a bit harrowing.

The telco networks have been widely praised as being quite robust.

Our network and our competitors also, you probably see at any time the best cross-industry cooperation. We were constantly on calls with counterparts at Telecom, 2degrees and TelstraClear working out where we wanted equipment and helping each other out. I guess all that competitor stuff tends to go out the door and so it should.

The mobile networks held up very well and we were very lucky. Partly because we have two networks. We have a 2G and a 3G network and the major commodity through this period is power.

Once you lose power to a cell site you need to put generators in there and diesel but having a 2G network, we were able to turn down 3G to conserve power and run voice and text via our 2G.

How long did that intense period last for?

Probably two to three weeks and since then we have been constantly working with businesses and our customers to figure out what is the right thing to do.

The whole dynamic of business has changed down there. Interestingly enough what we found was consumers have moved a lot more to hiring smartphones.

What they found was they couldn’t use their fixed lines and I think people have realised the importance of mobile communication and have gone for more features and functions in cellphones as a result.

Is the big issue in the future network capacity?

There are a couple of issues across the industry. One is the changing nature of communication. Moving from a world with a phone to a mobile computer. The network capacity required to meet the demand and the signalling that they generate is much greater than ever anticipated so telcos need to be looking at how to make the right investments and how to monetise the network investment that’s required to support features and functions that people want and demand.

I think things like Ultra Fast Broadband initiative are great, definitely the Rural Broadband Initiative will open up whole new areas of possibilities for rural sectors and communities, and change the way we do business in rural. But all that requires money and invetsment.

How many Vodafone cellsites are connected by fibre?

By the end of this year the majority of our cellsites will be connected by fibre.

We’ve got across our 2G and 3G network, we’ve got 1300 sites and are building more sites through the RBI. The majority of our sites will be connected by fibre.

What are the challenges around RBI from a technical perspective?

The remoteness, all the logistics of getting people – it’s quite a different planning cycle that’s needed. I think we’ve got a very well rehearsed model in terms of how to do the building.

From a regulatory point of view its going to be resource management. If people want better coverage, we need the (high) towers, there’s no way around it.

From a technical perspective, if you get the right amount of 700Mhz spectrum, what will it enable? What can you get in 4G, that you can’t get in 3G?

The thing it gives us is the ability to offer different types of services at higher speeds. The reality is that there are only certain devices that will ever be able to take advantage of the speeds we are talking about. For the average consumer – how fast do you need things to work?

Even some people today will still sign up to dial up plans because it meets their needs. So there’s going to be a very fine balance between the capacity and speed versus the price that people are prepared to pay for a service.

I think the biggest game in town for UFB and LTE will be content. What are the content services I can get. The mobile broadband speed you can get today at the top end of town at 3G is about 43Mbps, it’s satisfactory for everything that most people want to do.

What can people use 4G for? It bascially gives us more capacity, higher speeds to enable content - IPTV, downloading of video on demand, all those types of things.

Vodafone NZ has always had its strongest relationship with Nokia Siemens, from a network perspective. Do you think that will continue?

I think we’ve got a number of key partners and vendors. The majority of our spend across our network and IT systems is not internal, it’s with third parites. Nokia Siemens are our vendor partner for the ntwork and we’ve got a number of other partners. Downers who do a lot of work for us on cellsite builds and maintenance, we’ve got Huawei which does our fixed network and Alcatel-Lucent does a lot of work with us. Any number of vendors.

So Huawei looks after the local loop unbunding, Vodafone’s red network?


Was it a big learning curve to come from IBM for you? Although you had worked on telco systems in IBM hadn’t you?

My background was primarily IT, so coming into this role for me was more a learning curve on the network side of things but I’ve got a great team. I’ve hired some of the best people in the industry, especially in the network space.

It’s a challenge for all providers but being part of a global organisation gives us a lot of leverage and a lot of insight and learnings. We don’t always have to do things for the first time here. Vodafone globally is already rolling out LTE in places like Germany. We’re very lucky that we can take those learnings and experiences and we probably don’t have to think too much about it down here. It’s a question of when is the right time, when is spectrum available.

The biggest thing for us is getting the right amount of spectrum under the digital dividend, it’s key for all networks to go to the next generation. We’d be looking for potentially a third (700Mhz spectrum) of what’s available.

That would give you the opportunity to provide a nationwide 4G network?

We’d like to think we could run a ubiquitous 4G network on 700MHz spectrum.

Would you look to clubbing together with your competitors on this?

I don’t think sharing spectrum is a viable option. How would it work? I guess part of it depends on what the conditions of use are when they do the options or however they plan to dispose of it, I don’t think that’s even been decided yet.

The big question is the economic viability. Maybe it’s a foregone conclusion that the telcos will invest but [it depends] on what happens from a regulatory perspective. It’s a huge investment to put in a next generation network.

Can you put some figures on that, is it hundreds of millions of dollars?

Hundreds of millions.. hundreds of millions

It’s a lot.

It’s not chump change.

See part one of Q and A interview with Sandra Pickering here.

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