Vodafone Ireland’s head of networks on the company’s response to Covid-19

29 May 2020

Fiona Sheridan, head of networks at Vodafone Ireland. Image: Naoise Culhane Photography

Fiona Sheridan of Vodafone Ireland reveals how the company has responded to unprecedented demand during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Prior to becoming Vodafone Ireland’s head of networks in January 2020, Fiona Sheridan held a variety of IT roles in the company for almost 14 years.

Now, she is helping to guide the business through unprecedented times as much of the population is now working at home as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. This, as she explains, has thrown up some interesting challenges to keep vital networks operational.

‘This dramatic shift in online behaviour has resulted in a sudden and abrupt change to our traffic profiles’

Describe your role and your responsibilities in driving tech strategy.

I recently took up the role as head of network deployment in Vodafone Ireland. I came to the role from an IT background within Vodafone, where I was head of IT delivery for six years and led the IT integration for our large-scale business transformation programme.

I am excited to head up this successful network team. We are responsible for network optimisation, innovation and coverage roll-out, and have overseen a number of firsts including the launch of NB-IoT, 5G, giagabit broadband and 4G voice over LTE (VoLTE) calling.

We were also recently recognised as Ireland’s best network for the fifth year in a row for making and receiving mobile calls, video streaming, web browsing and file transfers. Our network was also rated number one for speech quality and for call reliability.

I hope to build on these achievements by overseeing the densification of 5G in cities and towns and a three-year campaign to bring increased 4G coverage to rural Ireland. In addition to this, we are working closely with our business team on 5G mobile private networks and exploring new use cases to bring this technology to life over the next few years.

How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected your company?

I believe in constantly evolving procedures and capabilities to ensure efficiencies, simplification and to future-proof every aspect of the business. A key element of this, for my team, lies in the increased use of data analytics. This has been crucial during the Covid-19 crisis as the majority of people are required to stay at home.

Connectivity to services and activities such as video streaming, collaboration tools and online learning are in more demand. We need to support all critical infrastructure customers – such as the HSE – who are providing critical public services at this extremely difficult time.

This dramatic shift in online behaviour has resulted in a sudden and abrupt change to our mobile and fixed network traffic profiles. For instance, voice traffic volumes are up 50pc during the working week. Interestingly, voice volumes from older non-smartphones show the highest levels of increase, indicating perhaps an older generation is now relying more than ever on mobile connectivity to stay in touch.

When looking at data usage via a desktop or fixed terminal, we have also seen an approximate 50pc increase throughout the day. This indicates much higher levels of utilisation during working hours than would normally be the case. Data usage on a smartphone or mobile device has also increased, with upload data volumes increasing by around 30pc throughout the day.

Extra capacity has been added to our fixed, broadband and mobile networks. There is a dedicated and comprehensive network monitoring system with a team of analysts in place, focusing on performance and changing requirements and demands. We have developed new feeds into our data warehouses and through the consistent analysis of this real-time data and information, we are able to find and react quickly to any pressure points that emerge.

Are you spearheading any major product or IT initiatives you can tell us about?

Ireland is the second country in Europe to trial OpenRAN, which shows our leadership in network infrastructure and deployment. The project is focused on expanding our supply chain options through engaging with OpenRAN vendors and encouraging newer network providers, to ensure the optimal balance across suppliers.

Our industry-leading trials of OpenRAN have underlined that this is the most promising route to advance niche suppliers and to supplement the large vendors, especially for radio equipment and software.

The project in Ireland will build a lab environment to fully test and evaluate the OpenRAN hardware and software capabilities across 2G, 3G, 4G technologies. In addition to this, the project will deploy approximately 50 new L800 4G sites in rural areas of the north-west, providing additional 4G coverage to these areas.

We are also expanding the use of Continual’s analytics to deliver excellent mobility quality of service and a connected car experience across Ireland’s entire national road system.

Continual’s Mobility Experience Analytics have been deployed across the whole of Vodafone Ireland’s network, monitoring and optimising connectivity for cars, IoT devices and handsets in mobility. Our radio network engineering teams are using the solution to manage our radio network technologies.

How big is your team? Do you outsource where possible?

I manage a team of 40, alongside contractors and key strategic partners. The team has many different skillsets, including network engineers, data analysts and project managers, as well as transmission and radio experts. The team builds and designs the network upgrades and roll-out plans, and we then often contract teams to activate these plans in different parts of the country.

What big tech trends do you believe are changing the world and your industry specifically?

5G and edge computing are trends that we will see and hear a lot more about, particularly in relation to smart manufacturing. 5G offers the possibility of greater capacity, lower latency and, importantly, new opportunities in IoT.

Speed, however, is the star of the current conversation and the increase will be impactful. Just as importantly, 5G will create more efficient networks and bring significantly lower latency. No one can imagine what the combination will enable or all the use cases to come.

Manufacturers are already experimenting with things like predictive maintenance and adaptive control. 5G will be a boon to these efforts and make the environment truly wireless.

In terms of security, what are your thoughts on how we can better protect data?

Data protection is a hot topic, especially with increased phishing and many people working outside the protected office environment during Covid-19. Business owners and employees need to act now to implement strategies and adhere to security guidelines to decrease the likelihood of cyberattacks.

The nature of cybersecurity is that criminals have always adopted new ways to invade company and personal devices. Virtual private networks have become the new lifeline for many businesses, which is extending encrypted networks to our homes.

It is important for a business to do a full audit on where a threat could come from and put in place security structures to reduce the success of an outside attack. There are sophisticated software packages and management tools available. When implemented with the right security behaviours, they provide a robust defence for businesses fully adopting a remote working model.

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