From 5G to telebots: The biggest trends in network technology

2 Sep 2022

Sheila Kavanagh. Image: Naoise Culhane Photography

Vodafone Ireland’s Sheila Kavanagh explains how far networks have come and how the power of 5G can address a range of challenges.

Sheila Kavanagh has been with Vodafone for many years, moving up the ranks through several leadership positions including head of network engineering and CTO.

She now works as the Vodafone Ireland network director, focusing on building new products tailored for each of Vodafone’s customer segment needs.

“It can vary from the more complex customised solutions like mobile private networks, enterprise networks, network slicing and to the less complex solutions for in and out of the home, like our recently launched Secure Net digital protection solution,” she said.

‘There is huge opportunity for enterprises across Ireland to engage with 5G connectivity’

What are some of the biggest challenges you’re facing in the current landscape?

Like every other business and industry both in Ireland and globally, inflationary pressures are an increasing challenge. Specifically, in relation to our network, energy costs make up a significant proportion of our total costs and very volatile.

However, we are adopting some innovative, sustainable and creative methods to try at least curb the consumption of energy and be as efficient and green as possible, even if the unitary costs are still increasing.

Firstly, our entire Irish operations are 100pc powered by electricity from renewable sources.

Secondly, through a unique pilot project using machine learning, we have developed an intelligent energy management capability for our network. The project allows us to analyse traffic patterns across the network throughout the day, in real time, so that we can identify the periods of the day where we can be more energy efficient with our consumption.

What are your thoughts on digital transformation?

The digitisation of our network, what we call ‘smart networks’, is the future and is core to our strategy. Digitalisation of networks can have two meanings, both internally for us as an organisation in how operate our network, and externally for the products we offer our customers.

Internally this means we want to be able to optimise, scale and operate our network in a seamless way through automation. Our energy management tool, using machine learning to analyse network traffic, is the perfect example of that. For this reason, we are committed to growing and developing our people to extend their skillset into software development and also hiring in new software development skills in the team.

Recently, we announced an ambition to hire 7,000 new software engineers in our European workforce by 2025. This ambition together with our exciting strategy makes Vodafone a very attractive company to work for.

An external aspect of the digitalisation of networks is related to the large swathes of aggregated data in our network that can provide useful intelligence and insights across a range of trends, opportunities and challenges happening in our world.

For example, through IoT solutions, farmers in Ireland would be able to measure gas emissions or irrigation levels on farms. At an aggregated, collective view, this data would provide clear value to those monitoring climate change actions and policies.

How can sustainability be addressed from a network perspective?

As mentioned, our entire Irish operations are 100pc powered by electricity from renewable sources. That means our mobile and fixed networks, our data centres, our retail outlets and our offices are all powered by green energy.  Together, that’s equivalent to the annual energy use of 27,000 Irish homes. And we have achieved this by our revised target of mid-2021, having originally planned to do this by 2025.

We’re also focusing on building a circular economy at Vodafone – for example, all the network equipment in Ireland is recycled or reused by another market, as part of an extensive effort across Europe to repurpose excess or decommissioned stock. We are also reusing, reselling or recycling 98.7pc of our network waste in Europe and that will be 100pc by 2025.

In parallel to our net-zero ambitions, Vodafone aims to use the network, technologies and services and products it offers to consumers and customers can support them in achieving their own ESG ambitions. Vodafone’s aims to support its customers to reduce their emissions by 350 megatonnes between 2020 and 2030.

IoT is helping customers reduce their emissions in different ways. For example, in the logistics sector, IoT can be used to identify optimal delivery routes to save time, optimising fleet management and productivity and decreasing fuel consumption.

What big tech trends do you believe are changing the world?

While the roll-out of 5G hasn’t had significant impact from a consumer perspective yet, there is huge opportunity for enterprises across Ireland to engage with 5G connectivity to realise efficiencies in their operations.

They can test and trial new and emerging technologies and better use data analytics to enhance business performance. We’ve been particularly focused on manufacturing and recently renewed our partnership with the Irish Manufacturing Research Centre to expand on the first standalone 5G mobile private network installed at the facility last year.

We are now providing a multi-access edge computing (MEC) environment for more secure connectivity and powerful computing at the edge of the network in places that previously couldn’t be connected.

MEC will enable the development of applications that require low-latency such as telerobotics – semi-autonomous machines controlled at a distance – and computer vision systems for automating tasks that can only be done using human vision.

We recently hosted a ‘5G for manufacturing’ event at the Irish Manufacturing Research Centre, which demonstrated the power of 5G within an industrial context to more than 30 organisations in Ireland with a specific interest in how it can be deployed within factory and commercial environments.

We showcased a number of these applications leveraging our unique 5G and MEC infrastructure covering augmented reality and telebot use cases. The possibilities for industry really are endless when you apply the power of 5G connectivity to solve challenges on the factory floor, particularly in the context of such increasing inflationary pressures where automation and efficiency is paramount to businesses.

How can we address the security challenges currently facing your industry?

Unfortunately, there has been a considerable rise in ransomware and cybercriminal activity globally over the last year and businesses across all industries and scales must contend with security challenges.

Remote or hybrid working certainly does change how we need to approach cybersecurity. People on the move, accessing corporate systems from different locations and from different devices, means that there are more areas where a vulnerability might exist. With hybrid working now here to stay, it is imperative that the security model being used and ensure it is fit for purpose in the new world.

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