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Building Back Better: Delivering the next generation of Connectivity for Europe

05 Feb 2021Viewpoint
By Nick Read, Chief Executive, Vodafone Group

Nick delivered this speech at the LSE German Symposium on February 5th 2021.

Thank you for inviting me to talk today on such a critical topic for society. You will be deeply relieved, that I do not have a thousand slides to talk too, but I will have a few graphics just to add variety to the background!

I thought I would take this opportunity to cover a few things:

Firstly, give you my personal reflections as CEO of Vodafone, on how we responded to the pandemic as a company. Secondly, to share what European citizens consider to be important aspects in the recovery, & finally touch on the future digital society.

Starting on my reflections of the past 12 months. I would say there are four.

The first may sound a little obvious now, but at the beginning of 2020, none of us – even for industry “insiders” like myself – realised just how vital connectivity and networks would be, to keeping society functioning.  

High quality connectivity has become a lifeline – for health services, education, home working, businesses, the vulnerable – in fact the whole of society. Countries are making strategic decisions to build the best high speed connectivity infrastructure, to ensure they can compete on the global stage – those that don’t, risk falling behind.

The second reflection I have is the importance to any business of “Purpose” – your north star – the reason you exist over just making money. When I came into the CEO role, I wanted us to be purpose-led – to enable an inclusive, sustainable, digital society.

So when the pandemic hit, the focus of myself & that of my team, was how can we actively support society during this unprecedented time.

Our response was a comprehensive five-point plan.

We provided connectivity to Covid-wards, hospitals and health workers. We zero rated internet access to health care sites, to ensure everyone got the advice they needed. We gave students free access to educational sites. We helped millions of people work and study from home, delivering more network capacity, to support surging demands for video conferencing. We worked closely with government departments on aggregated anonymized big data models to understand the spread of the virus.

In fact, to date, we have given over €150m in contributions to help our customers, health workers, students, and businesses - reaching more than 100m people. Most recently, Vodafone Foundation committed an additional €20 million to advance digital skills for 16 million people across 14 European markets by 2025. I was also delighted to see so many other companies step up and a make material contribution, in this moment of crisis.

The third reflection was regarding my team – it’s big with over 100,000 employees worldwide. Within 10 days, 95% were working from home, without any loss of service for our customers – a huge logistical challenge. Since then, my team have worked longer hours, the weekends, at personal sacrifice, with the single passion of keeping everyone connected. It showed to me the shared values we hold - which we call the Vodafone Spirit - acted as a glue that fosters a culture intrinsically connected to our purpose.

Throughout Vodafone we had to be agile & adapt to the new working model – increasing communication, empowerment, trust, and ensuring structured wellbeing support, to help address the stress of balancing work & family commitments whilst working from home.

We have also reflected on the future of the office. How do we harness the productivity benefits of working from home, whilst using the office for moments when it’s important to come together to strategize, brain-storm, advance projects at key steps and learn/network. Our focus is on ensuring every individual at Vodafone has the right environment, to be at their best & realise their full potential. 

The combination of Purpose (the why) driving the Strategy (the what), underpinned by the Culture (the how), ensured we did the right things for all stakeholders – customers, governments, employees, shareholders & charities.

However – my fourth and final reflection – is that despite all of this, and despite other industries stepping forth to contribute - the crisis has exposed a widening digital divide:

  • Public services lacking effective digital tools are stretched and struggling.

  • Children whose parents cannot afford laptops or tablets have fallen behind their peers.

  • Elderly people who lack digital skills, are among those most isolated in our community.

  • Businesses that had not digitised, failed to survive.

I firmly believe that we, as a society, do not have an ambition – but in fact an obligation - to change this. The good news is that I see the desire to make it happen.

Europe has come together to help repair the economic and social damage caused by COVID-19 - with the European Commission, the European Parliament and EU leaders agreeing on a recovery plan, that will lead the way out of the crisis, and lay the foundations for a digital, greener, more sustainable Europe.

The Recovery and Resilience Funds – an additional €750bn - offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to shape our European economies and societies for the better and leave a digital dividend for current & future generations.

European citizens agree. A new survey from Vodafone’s independent think tank - sampling over 15,000 citizens across 15 European countries - found that almost 70% think this is an effective way of helping their country recover from the crisis.

Even more important, citizens want to close digital divides and accelerate digital transformation. Three out of four Europeans, think there are 3 priority areas to be addressed - digital public services, digital skills and broadband internet access.

Let me give a perspective on each of the 3 areas.

Take digital public services. Even before the crisis, Europe’s healthcare was struggling. During this crisis, public services have been forced to digitise - and nowhere more so, than healthcare.

Digitalisation enables more efficient use of resources, better reach to patients and improved quality of care.

With such a transformation, the best healthcare can be available to everyone. As an example, Vodafone is working with the University Clinics in Düsseldorf, to establish a blueprint for the use of 5G in clinics and hospitals, to deliver benefits across a range of use cases such as precision medicine, mixed reality surgeries, remote consultation and virtual medical education.

Even a 5% increase in telemedicine across Europe could yield €48bn of cost savings and prevent more than 165,000 deaths - annually.

However, delivering digital tools requires the appropriate digital skills. Doctors and nurses need training in how to use the digital tools they are provided with. Healthcare institutions need to integrate new processes and ways of working to realise the benefits of new technologies.

The digital skills gap in Europe is a critical roadblock - 42% of European citizens lack basic digital skills.

Europe has a serious shortage of skilled ICT specialists, to fill the growing number of job vacancies in all sectors of the economy.

Today Europe has global leadership in many industrial sectors – manufacturing, automotive, defence, energy, space, to name just a few. But critically, the industrial world is merging with the digital world. It will be new digital technologiesthat will drive the next wave of productivity in most of Europe’s traditional industries. If we do not accelerate our European capability, we will lose to China & the U.S.

All of this is dependent on best in class digital infrastructure – it is fundamental to Europe’s competitiveness.

It is far from best in class today. It is hard to believe, but in Europe just over 40% of households are not covered by any form of fast connectivity service.

Those households cannot work remotely; they cannot access online education or digital healthcare. Overall, Europe has a growing connectivity investment gap of over €40bn a year.

Governments do not have the budgets to close this gap on their own. We need a model where policies encourage private investment alongside public funds.  

As a priority, the Recovery funds - combined with private investment - should be focused on investing in rural connectivity, to address the digital divide and accelerating the deployment of 5G across Europe, along with the decommissioning of inefficient 2G/3G technology, to enable Gigabit connectivity to underpin a globally competitive Europe.

I would like to give you one nice simple example of how transformational Gigabit connectivity can be.

In Ireland, Vodafone and ESB created Ireland’s first rural digital hub, in a small town called Skibbereen. This was focused on rural regeneration.

The initiative provides 1GB speeds to the town, and gives business and social hubs two years’ free gigabit broadband connectivity. This enabled Skibbereen to attract both foreign and national investment, strengthen & grow its community, and support job creation. In addition, workers no longer need to commute to cities, reducing their carbon footprint & improving their quality of life.

In this one town alone, Gigabit connectivity has created over 200 jobs. According to a report commissioned in 2019, a digital hub in every county in Ireland could generate over 1,000 new businesses,

We are now working with the Irish Government to create 300 connected communities, in rural areas. I firmly believe that gigabit connectivity is transformational to society.

Looking to the future, what will our digital society look like in 10 years?

Let’s start with connectivity - 3G essentially gave us the ability to browse the internet on our mobile. 4G enabled a good video experience for consumers on their smartphones. But 5G is very different – the media talk about augmented or virtual reality for consumers, which will come over the next 5-10 years – but the critical aspect of 5G is that it will power the next digital industrial revolution.

5G provides gigabit speeds, with ultra low latency. Coupled with cloud, AI & IoT capabilities, it means that you can put computing power at the edge of the network to control “real-time” numerous devices & services.

Take a virtualised factory as an example. We worked with ABB in Italy to enable “Cobots” – robots that collaborate with human colleagues to perform repetitive tasks, shouldering some of the physical burden. 5G enables real-time communication between the robot and operator, so they’re able to work together efficiently and safely on a production line.

AR headsets feed detailed information in real-time to workers along the entire production line. This allows workers to adapt more quickly to new areas and use their skills in high value tasks.

We are just discovering the possibilities of how gigabit connectivity & digital technologies can help society and improve how we live.

To close.  We are at a pivotal moment - the digital economy is combining with the industrial economy, through gigabit connectivity, edge computing, cloud, AI & IoT.

Europe is already a leader in these industrial sectors.

But we have to set a higher ambition for our digital transformation, to stay a leader. We cannot risk falling behind in an area which is so critical to European jobs, European industries and Europe’s future as a whole.

You have a critical role, as leaders, to build back stronger – you have my (and Vodafone’s) full support.

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