Technology

How everything will hook up to your mobile phone in UK 2030

Business Reporter talks to O2’s Patricia Cobián about how mobile tech will be interwoven into everything we do – and how the UK is at the forefront.

The chief financial officer of mobile group O2 points to her earrings and smiles. Business Reporter has just asked Madrid-born Patricia Cobián whether in ten or 15 years’ time mobile phone handsets – so ubiquitous today – will still be here in their present form, or have passed into history with the telegram and the gramophone.

“I can’t say with certainty but perhaps by 2030 I will be making and listening to phone calls using earrings just like these,” she says. “It maybe sounds crazy now but I do believe I will be able to go into a jeweller and buy earrings that will connect me when my mum calls from Spain. It may also be commonplace to communicate through other connected wearables such as clothes. Whatever it will be, you’ll be able to go out and not need to carry a handset as we do today.”

It may be wise to mark Cobián’s words – she has some previous success when it comes to future-gazing. “I remember back in 2003 when I was working in professional services in the US. I was part of a group talking about the opportunity for data connectivity in the consumer space,” she says. “I remember building this idea of a man sitting in a barber’s chair having a haircut while regularly checking his BlackBerry device. BlackBerry was the big thing then! We thought maybe it was too far-fetched. We thought that it was never going to happen, but 14 years on it is a day-to-day experience now. It’s why when I think of the next 15 years I get so excited.”

Today, sitting in the vibrant O2 branch in the Westfield shopping centre in West London, you can sense that excitement about the potential of technology. Upbeat music plays and coffee is offered to customers who eagerly walk around the bright devices on display.

It isn’t just handsets. Customers, and Business Reporter, don Virtual Reality glasses and are whisked away to adventures where dinosaurs run straight at you out of a forest, where you can drink with Mongolian farmers or take a boat down the Mekong river. The feelings of wonder and optimism are not just marketing jargon but very real. Technology can be good for the soul, it seems.

O2 has its own dedicated department looking at such new trends and technologies to try to figure out what will become critical to consumers and businesses over the nexat few years. “They have the long-term vision hats on. They are the ones looking at those earrings that I want!” Cobián laughs.

O2 is also developing new services such as O2 Home, where customers can manage their central heating and other devices via an app on their phone; or O2 Drive, where an app can use GPS to rate your performance behind the wheel and suggest feedback.

It is part of a push towards greater use of personalised services and cognitive intelligence techniques such as its new voice-recognition customer service device Aura. Cobián, who took up the role of CFO last September – she has ten years’ experience at O2’s parent company the Telefónica group – believes this focus on customer service and customer products will only intensify in the years ahead.

“Mobile is pervasive. It has changed the way that we do business and live our lives. Around 90 per cent of Facebook users access it via mobile. My children’s school will reach out to me on my mobile, as does the GP and local council. It has become the primary medium of communication and that’s only going to increase. The nightmare a few years ago was losing your wallet – now the nightmare of losing your mobile is just as scary,” she states. “With the development of 5G from 2020, we will begin to see the arrival of much higher download speeds, more reliability and the reduction of latency. This is going to help our businesses and technological innovations to thrive.”

Indeed, O2 believes 5G will contribute £7billion a year to the economy by 2026. “You are going to see connected wearables which will track all your health valuables and ensure real-time medical responses,” Cobián says. “You will see the real-time management of traffic and even real-time monitoring of water pipes. We had a water pipe burst in our street the other day and it took six hours to fix. That was a pretty good response, but in the future you will have engineers there within minutes. You will also see many more developments in the areas of smart cities, more seamless public services, connected cars, connected devices in the home and 3D video calls. That is the power of mobile connectivity.”

Cobián is confident that the UK will lead the way in these developments heading towards 2030. “When we look elsewhere in Europe, you realise that the UK is at the leading edge of digital. Our UK consumers and
businesses are more data-hungry and data-sophisticated than any other country in Western Europe. They adopt the latest trends quicker,” she says. “But we will not push technology just for the sake of it. We have a customer-led mobile-first strategy, which means we look at what customers want to achieve and their needs. Then we look at what we can do to deliver that.”

In order to make the 2030 vision a reality Cobián believes more work needs to be done now to improve mobile and digital infrastructure. “When people think of infrastructure they think of government and public sector spend,” she states. “But in our industry, it is largely private investment. We invest £2million a day in our network expanding coverage. Developing infrastructure is key because at present mobile contributes £4.5billion to the economy and a whopping 140,000 jobs. We need it to be fit for the future.”

The government’s Digital Economy Bill, which received Royal Assent earlier this year, singled out the need to enable digital infrastructure through the creation of a new Electronic Communications Code to “cut the cost and simplify the building of mobile and superfast broadband infrastructure”. It outlined new and simpler planning rules for building broadband infrastructure and new measures to manage radio spectrum to increase the capacity of mobile broadband.

Cobián believes such initiatives put things on the right path, but feels the government can do more. “We’d like to see local planning regulations evolve which means that mobile operators can deploy quickly and efficiently. In London, we may be deploying hundreds of thousands of new sensors to ensure 5G connectivity and develop those traffic management and health applications that we need. We also need to encourage infrastructure providers to increase their collaboration with mobile operators to ensure we are digitally ready,” she says.

Cobián also urges the government to incorporate mobile at the heart of the industrial strategy. “It needs to recognise the reliance of UK consumers and businesses on mobile and how that is going to evolve,” she explains.

Earlier this week industry regulator Ofcom announced a cap on the amount of mobile spectrum companies can bid for in the auction of licences later this year. The cap imposed in order to “safeguard competition” will hit major players BT/EE and Vodafone most.

BT and EE currently cover around 45 per cent of the spectrum at present, with Vodafone at 27 per cent and O2 and Three with under 20 per cent each. By 2020, Ofcom says there will be a 37 per cent ceiling on all useable mobile spectrum that one operator can control. O2 responded to the announcement by stating that it is important that Ofcom presses ahead with the auction quickly so that the whole country can benefit from the new mobile spectrum as soon as possible.

Spectrum caps have been an issue that O2 has long said needs addressing. Speaking before the Ofcom announcement Cobián said: “We are the only market in Western Europe where there is one operator with more than 35 per cent. If the imbalance isn’t reduced we run the risk of having a situation like Openreach, where one operator has more than 50 per cent of the spectrum. This could affect competitiveness and investments which means we will not be able to make the best of what technologies can provide. The potential to drive productivity and create new services in is huge. As a country, we have the appetite.”

And soon, perhaps, also the jewellery to go with it.

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