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Vodafone’s Italy CEO discusses the coronavirus crisis

Italy is one of the hardest-hit countries in the coronavirus pandemic. The CEO of Vodafone Italy, Aldo Bisio, recently spoke to Corriere della Sera, a daily Italian newspaper. Below is an English translation of the interview:

Slow down the virus. Yet continue daily life, made up of relationships, people, work...

“A life that also includes emotional connections, continuing to do things. My 6,000 colleagues who have now been working from home for five weeks. The structure of the network, configurations, call centres. I’ll admit it: even I am surprised. In just a few weeks, we have transformed the way we work, something that a little while back I would have said required another two years…”

Aldo Bisio, an engineer by training and head of Vodafone Italia, wants to make one thing clear:

“The network and the services provided by mobile operators are the country’s connective tissue. This situation has led all of us to realise that this is the case. Mobile data traffic is up 30% and fixed data traffic by 60%. No other type of infrastructure would have been able to cope with such an impact in so little time. But this was only possible because of how much has been invested in the past.

“This granite-like resilience has highlighted the importance of modern infrastructure to a country. For our part, it has sharpened our sense of social responsibility, making us realise that what we do is holding the country together”.

An emergency that has put networks, businesses and the government on an uncertain footing. It is difficult to see how we can come out of this quickly…

“And this is the point. We will come through this, like a storm at sea, but we need to start thinking about how we are going to return to the new normality”.

Don’t you think it’s a bit early for that?

“Sure, it’s difficult. But we mustn’t make the mistake of taking a sequential approach: now we have to deal with the emergency, then we can think about how to exit from the crisis. We have got to manage these two aspects in parallel. The decision to shut everything down was taken and it was the right thing to do. But alongside the lockdown we need to think about how to unlock this situation, about how we come out the other side. It won’t happen overnight, but sooner or later, it will happen and it’s important that we start thinking about how to manage it”.

Economists seem to think that there will be something like a double-digit hit to GDP…

“This will be the biggest hit to economic growth since the Second World War. The longer the lockdown lasts, the greater the impact will be, also from a social point of view. Our prime focus in recent weeks has been on keeping our people safe. An enormous task. Everyone at Vodafone is now working from home. Our 2,000 call centre operators, who normally work at our eight sites dotted around the country, are also handling calls from home, taking 80,000 calls a day”.

Our houses seem to have turned into towers of Babel, functioning as offices, schools, gyms via Youtube…

“That’s right. But just think for a moment what it would have been like if the network hadn’t been able to make all this possible. We have reinvented ourselves in order to work together at a distance. Even I found it difficult to adjust. I was used to dealing with people face to face. To stay in touch with them, I am using our internal social media to tell them about what we are doing and to look beyond the emergency. This situation is changing us all. This means that mechanisms can be altered, offering greater flexibility. And this has only been made possible by accelerating digitalisation”.

To tell the truth, Italy had fallen some way behind with regards to digitalisation…

“But we are now making rapid progress. We are seeing lasting changes. We are already asking ourselves how this will change people’s habits, how they behave as consumers and what will remain after all this is over. We are sailing in uncharted waters”.

You say that we need to look beyond the emergency, but it is difficult to do this at the moment…

“I know, but we need to start thinking about this now. We are ready to play our part and I am sure that many companies are ready to do the same, to talk to the government about this”.

Let’s try to look forwards, in spite of everything…

“To start with, we need a progressive, segmented approach. Certain areas of the country, such as Lombardy, have unfortunately been hit the hardest, as have older members of the population. We have to think about how we can progressively restart the areas that have overcome peak infection. And then we have technology.

“We are working with various regional authorities and the Civil Protection Agency to provide them with anonymous, aggregated data about people’s movements. These flows, strictly anonymous, enable the authorities to assess the effectiveness of the containment measures adopted, so as to help them take decisions in the public interest. As we start up again, we will need more granular data, showing the density and geographical distribution of outbreaks. However, such a degree of granularity would have implications for privacy. We already have the ability to manage data anonymity and segregation. The use of technology must be accompanied by behavioural changes, however. Take Japan: we were amazed in the past to see travellers wearing masks, but now we realise that it was a sign of respect for others. We will need to adopt new forms of behaviour”.

If I’ve understood correctly, it would be very wrong to think that we can close everything down for as long as it takes and then open up again in one go…

“Exactly. To contain the risk, we need to start thinking now about what comes after. We have worked with virologists on models that can predict the spread of malaria in Sub-Saharan Africa. Now we are looking at how to adapt these statistical models to the virus. I think our policymakers, by bringing together companies such as ours and other technology businesses, can start to imagine how we can come out of this, protecting life and our wellbeing. Companies, scientists, universities, need to start working in this direction right now”.

Talking about networks, 5G could play a big role in managing this extremely complicated return to normality….

“Just think about our hospitals. They have shown enormous resilience. But the issue will be linked to their ability to be more flexible. Digital and 5G can help in this. Remote diagnostics, which at this time could reduce the risk of contagion, was previously viewed with some suspicion. Now, we will see a big push in this direction. This will require large-scale investment, not only in infrastructure, in software and digital platforms. This will involve the health system, through to logistics, services and manufacturing. The virus arrived before the 5G system was ready. But it has given us a good reason to put our foot on the gas. By combining technology with new forms of behaviour, we will feel safer. But we need to start thinking about this now”.

This interview originally appeared in Corriere della Sera on 29 March 2020.

  • COVID-19
  • Digital Society
  • Europe
  • Viewpoint

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