Inside Vodafone’s Newbury HQ

vodafone HQI, along with an elite band of bloggers, were invited to spend some time at Vodafone’s campus headquarters in Newbury. We were taken around and shown most of the operations there and got to find out just what it takes to keep a huge network on top of things.

Being a company intent on being at the cutting edge of technology and customer service takes some inventive and creative thinking and this soon became apparent with how Vodafone conducts its business.

The emphasis is on flexible working and being judged on your output rather than hours spent in the office. To be honest, they’ve even done away with offices – not even the CEO has his own office – instead, staff are encouraged to hot desk and collaborate in small teams.

More people than desks

With 5,500 staff and just 3,500 desks, staff are actively encouraged to move around, work from home, and book meeting rooms sparingly – and then only if the meeting is going to take half-an-hour or more. Anything less than that will involve you and your cohort pulling up a chair in the cafe or one of the break-out areas.

Don’t worry about being overheard though as white noise is being pumped out in these areas which acts to prevent voices carrying beyond the group.

vodafone atriumBack to those meeting rooms – the bookings are made remotely through software or by using touch pads outside the room. If you are late getting to your room then tough – anyone has the right to grab it if it’s not being used. Also, if you start to overrun there is an agreement that those next have the right to boot you out. Needless to say, this keeps things on schedule and to the agenda.

In order to discourage people getting too attached to a certain desk there was also a distinct lack of power sockets. That and the threat of should you not remove all your kit when you go home you can expect it to either end up in the charity bin or incinerated.

vodafone convergence cornerMany of the desks in the areas I saw were salvaged from previous offices. According to Vodafone, there was no need to spend money on new desks – most of the money was apparently spent getting ergonomic, and fully adjustable seats instead.

All staff, whatever their position, are given the same phone and laptop. No pulling rank to get the better kit, everyone has a valuable job to do.

vodafone convergence crescentAs nice as it was to see how people can enjoy a working environment that’s more akin to working at a table in Starbucks – actually that was exactly what one of the areas was like as it was a Starbucks! – I was also here to see how the network is monitored, how new devices were chosen to use the network and what sort of testing they went though.

Real store and mock shop

As Vodafone is a retail chain as well as a network, the HQ campus actually houses a fully functioning store in the building near reception. This is open to the general public and operates just like any one of its high-street stores.

vodafone hq storeUpstairs, in what apparently used to be a storeroom, is a ‘mock up’ concept store. This is used to test out shop layouts with people invited to take a ‘customer journey’ so that they can map out where people will most likely head when first entering a store. It is also used to try our displays and that sort of thing too.

Network Operations Centre

There were quite a few areas which we were allowed to visit as long as phones were kept in our pockets and our cameras in the meeting room. None were so closely guarded, however, as the Network Operations Centre – or NOC.

vodafone nocSecurity in this building is so tight that even regular Vodafone staff members are not allowed access.

In order to distinguish the NOC team from the rest of the Vodafone staff they wear a unique black uniform. I did quip that they must be the NOC Ninjas – but things are very serious in this area.

I did ask if there were any press-friendly shots of the NOC that I could use and, well, there isn’t. It is that secret.

When you step out of the lift you realise that the lighting is quite subdued. This is down to this being a 24-7 area and, as such, there is no indication of what is happening outside – beyond a range of monitors on walls showing the likes of mast positions and workloads.

USS_Enterprise_(alternate_reality)_bridgeMonitoring the amount of traffic hitting the network is obviously important. For instance, after the recent and tragic events in Paris, it was here that Vodafone was able to make it possible for customers roaming in France to make calls and use data for free to contact concerned friends and family.

It’s in the NOC where plans are made to provide enhanced coverage for large events, such as Glastonbury, or making sure the network can cope with increased demand at fixed venues, like sporting grounds. They even roll out mobile masts so that fields such as Glastonbury, Knebworth and Donnington have service.

As well as the actual network, Vodafone keeps an eye on breaking news in order to react to events such as I’ve just mentioned, and the weather.

The elements can have a direct impact on the network through storms and high winds (and associated power failures) so they need to be able to deploy engineers quickly and, where possible, re-route signals so that disruption to the service can be mitigated.

NOC operatives check CCTV coverage being fed live from numerous sites to look out for theft and vandalism that could also knock out service.

All Vodafone users travelling abroad are monitored here in the NOC and a display showing the live number of incoming and outgoing communications on the network were quite amazing.

The War Room

This closed off section of the NOC first floor is where the really intense stuff happens – as the name suggests.

The two-layered layout has the main team around a huge table where strategies and plans can be plotted whereas, around the pit, sits those who are there to assist with making these decisions happen.

It is not uncommon for people to spend days (working shifts) dealing with major events as they unfold, and making on-the-spot vital decisions – all of which is recorded and sent to the relevant regulators for any future investigations or inquiries.

battlestar galactica cicWe happened to be there on ‘Red Thursday’, Vodafone’s jump on ‘Black Friday’, which meant that the War Room was in use by people ensuring that the network was able to cope with increased demand due to the deals on PAYG phones, contract phones and special tariffs created just for the weekend.

It was kind of neat to hear the Star Trek-esque alarm go off – I have to admit to looking around to see if any one had a look of Kirk or Picard. The answer to that is no.

In the past the War Room has been used to manage more serious issues such as having to deal with being ordered to shut down its operations in Egypt, under orders from the Government there during the anti-Hosni Mubarak protests in 2011.

At other times, you can expect to see the room filled with people discussing how to get parts of the network back up and running after major environmental events such as big storms, or heavy flooding.

As you can imagine, even keeping tabs on new activations on the network at Christmas time and bracing the network for midnight on News Year’s eve when the texts fly are just as important.

Device testing and approval

Running a network is just one side of Vodafone’s business. The other side is supplying the phones that run on it and someone has to ensure that they will do just that. Perfectly.

Ensuring that a mobile phone will work as intended on the network is a process that often begins many months before a phone is even announced by the manufacturer, let alone announced as being sold by Vodafone.

vodafone hq groundsThe testing is done both here at the Newbury campus as well as at a central testing facility in Germany, as much of the portfolio for Vodafone is planned for throughout Europe and the rest of the world.

I never realised how different territories dictated which devices were sold. For example, handsets sold through Vodafone Italy aren’t subsidised which means that the price of the device plays a bigger part in a customers purchasing decision than brand and specifications might over here.

No matter what the phone is though, each one has to go through hundreds of hours of testing to detect bugs, possible stability issues, or battery problems. During that there will generally be a number of different versions of firmware to be tested, from the earliest prototype software, right through to the final retail build that lands in the customer’s hands.

Not only does Vodafone have to test its own apps, but the partner apps that Vodafone actively promotes such as Now TV or Spotify (which can be used for free on certain tariffs) also have to be tested thoroughly else the customer service lines will surely get a battering.

my vodafoneThe My Vodafone app, which shows how many minutes, texts, and data, is left is now pre-installed on new phones. The purpose of this move is to reduce the amount of calls to customer services to find out this information that can be readily accessed by the user in seconds.

net performThe Net Perform app allows each user to send valuable data on network performance in any area they visit, which could help make improvements and detect blackspots, while network speed tests can be performed without using a single byte of your data allowance.

Vodafone classic techIf a handset doesn’t meet Vodafone’s stringent set of rules they will contact the manufacturer to ask for changes to be made. If this cannot be done to Vodafone’s satisfaction it could mean that the phone ultimately gets rejected by the company. I did try to find out a percentage of how many phones get turned down each year

There have been occasions where Vodafone has discovered issues that effect the handsets so crucially that an update has to be sent to every phone, even the non-Vodafone branded variants.

Don’t think that Vodafone’s own branded phones can bypass this strict processes – they have to go through the same entire procedure, perhaps even more carefully.

Naturally, as with all things, some manufacturers are better at responding to feedback than others. The long-established manufacturers understand more about the strict requirements Vodafone has, whereas some of the newer entrants into the market – particularly new manufacturers based in China – can take a bit longer to understand where Vodafone is coming from and the specific standards required.

Besides software, there are many health and safety issues, like making sure the handset conforms to strict regulations on batteries, SAR ratings (emissions) and recycling. Then there’s Bluetooth and Wi-Fi certifications to comply with as well.

Vodafone also goes beyond the standard industry requirements. For example, instead of carrying out a EU-standard 1 metre drop test, Vodafone tests from a height of 1.5 metres. What Vodafone doesn’t do is test things like waterproofing, as promoted by some manufacturers as it is down to the manufacturer to back up their claims, and also deal with the likes of soggy phones.

The inevitable question of how Vodafone deals with planned releases from one of the most secretive tech makers (apart from when they ‘leak’ information), Apple. I don’t think anyone was expecting many details surrounding this but the short reply was  that everything is done under a strict Non-Disclosure Agreement.

Continued support

As most people will opt for a two-year contract, it is important that Vodafone keeps up with software updates and bug fixes.

This means that every phone sold by Vodafone has a planned 18 months of support at least. This includes regular updates for bug fixes, Vodafone’s own-brewed apps, as well as planning how to manage the major OS updates.

Vodafone is able to schedule OS updates with manufacturers quicker than in the past, thanks to Google’s new approach of releasing each new OS to developers months in advance of its release to consumers. Apple’s iOS procedures are simplified as there is only a strict range of devices it has to work on, unlike Android’s broad range of devices, screen sizes, and chipsets.

Network Testing

After checking out the NOC and getting some background regarding the testing of the devices we were taken over to another building where the specialised testing is carried out.

This was quite a way away and so we were taken there in a custom kitted VW Samba bus – to hear (and smell) that aircooled flat 4 was a glorious moment and made me miss my little ’71 Karmann Ghia coupe again.

vodafone samba with us vodafone sambaEnough of my vee-dub reminiscing.

Once we had all signed in we were guided around the various test labs which ranged from regular desks to rooms with little shielded boxes that you can place a handset it and feed it with whichever radio signal you want to test it against. In order to operate the handset inside the box you have to slip your hands through in-built gloves – just like in biology labs.

For more involved testing the site also houses a number of Faraday cages that allow a range of tests to be carried out more naturally but still in a totally radio-free environment.

Feeling a little like stepping into a nuclear bunker thanks to the huge, powered doors, each Faraday cage at Vodafone’s testing centre allows staff to isolate themselves from the outside world and feed in only the radio signals they wish to test.

The kind of tests that take place could range from checking out the hand off between 2G to 3G, or 3G to Wi-Fi calling, or to make calls on 4G isolated from using other bands. They also check to see how individual handsets work across every frequency Vodafone uses.

In the building was what to me looked like a huge server room. There were rows upon rows of cabinets, each fitted with every bit of network infrastructure equipment that Vodafone uses around the country.

Powerful fans keeps everything running at optimal temperature and there was a whole range of equipment from a variety of manufacturers and eras.

It was interesting to see that, as is the way in tech, how one new cabinet is now able to do the job of a few or more of the previous generation. Banks of back-up batteries were installed should there be a power failure but only enough to keep things ticking over for a relatively short period – by then it is hoped that whatever caused the outage would be resolved. If it can’t then, we were told, that something more serious than loosing the power to call or text is likely to be happening.

Before anything can be installed on the live network, it is tested here.

Planning ahead

You may have already read that Vodafone is beginning to re-purpose its 900MHz spectrum which is currently used for 2G and hand it over to 3G. Doing this should greatly increase data speeds for users, as well as giving HD Voice to more people.

dr-rob-introAccording to ‘Dr Rob’ (or Robert Matthews to his family – above), Vodafone’s resident network expert, having that 900MHz spectrum allows Vodafone more freedom with its 800MHz 4G network.

This is because some other networks have to reduce the 800MHz 4G power levels to remain within existing 2G (1800MHz) and 3G (2100MHz) coverage footprints. Lower frequencies can travel further, and penetrate buildings more successfully.

Dr Rob also went through the difficulties faced by the network when trying to install masts and that the circular process of customers complaining about poor connectivity who will also block any plans to have a mast erected within their view.

antenna-bestVodafone has plans to add more femtocells in rural areas in order to lessen ‘notspots’.  One scheme run by Vodafone in partnership with rural pubs organisation Pub is the Hub, involves putting Vodafone’s Premium Sure Signal femtocell into selected pubs. The femtocell connects with the hostelries’ existing fixed broadband connections to provide 3G voice and data coverage.

village-hallThe first pubs in the pilot scheme were the Cross Keys in Dilham and The Mermaid Inn in Elsing, both in Norfolk. Village halls such as the one above have also been part of the scheme.

Other means employed have been hiding taller masts in church spires using special cloaking paint schemes. Unfortunately, not everything goes Vodafone’s way and whereas everyone wants excellent network service – not everyone realises that there has to be the infrastructure to provide it.

Vodafone Xone

Continuing to look in to the future is a special department which is responsible for showcasing new products – Vodafone Xone.

Xone is a new area and is used to test out new ideas and potential Vodafone products with a limited number of customers before judging whether or not they will go into full-scale production.

vodafone xoneWith a focus on innovative products and helping them evolve, Xone hopes to offer a range of cutting-edge products in to the main Vodafone portfolio.

Currently Xone has four products on offer as well as assisting start-ups such as herO, a tracker watch designed especially for children to wear.

I plan to go in to more detail about Vodafone Xone soon as I hope to test at least one of Xone’s products shortly.

Vodafone visit wrap up

I know that there’s always more going on behind the scenes of big organisations and Vodafone is no exception. I do like how the main part is run with its flexible, collaborative lay-out and the open planned-ness of the offices.

It was a privilege to see inside the highly secure NOC, especially on a day when the War Room was in use. To see the level of monitoring that is in constantly happening every hour of every day is quite breathtaking.

On the other side of the operation, the level of testing is equally impressive.

Each time I make a phone call or am deciding on my next handset, I am sure that I will think back to my trip around Vodafone’s HQ.