Under the leadership of Chris Gent Vodafone went shopping with the simple goal of being the biggest mobile operator in the world. They only wanted to be the biggest, they also wanted to be the best. When you thought of a mobile phone they wanted you to think of the bright red Vodafone logo. On their way they also happened upon the term "Vodafone Experience", effectively Vodafone wanted their customers to live, sleep and breath the Vodafone Experience. There simply would be no other mobile network that could offer you the warm fuzzies like Vodafone was going to do. Vodafone wanted to help design the phones, run the network and deliver you content on your phone through a walled garden WAP based experience known simply as Vodafone Live!
This dream of word dominance continued under Gent who didn't really see any reason why Vodafone couldn't have a presence in every market in the world because afterall that's what great companies do. The problem was that there were significant stumbling blocks that Vodafone either ignored, or didn't see. Because Vodafone had built itself primarily on acquisitions they had a huge mix of radio gear, billing systems and networks from numerous different vendors and trying to roll out products and services across this network was damn near impossible. Around 18 months ago somebody inside Vodafone finally
realised this and the "One Vodafone" concept was launched. Vodafone was now going to take advantage of the economies of scale that should be being achieved in a company of their size with the ultimate goal of outperforming their peers. There were going to be standardised plans for cellsites, core networks moved to IP, and network planning and purchasing that is nogotiated on a global scale removing much of the decision making from individual networks. Phones were going to be heavily customised (because the walled garden of Live! was believed to attract people to the network) and heavily marketed because significant numbers of customers already know what model of handset they want before they go shopping for a phone. So with this big plan how could it all go wrong for Vodafone? Chris Gent stood down after taking Vodafone from a small startup in the UK to become the dominant player in the mobile world. His replacement Arun Sarin has been unpopular since his appointment and there have been plenty of fights inside the Vodafone boardroom, the most famous of which was Gent resigning as honorary life president earlier this year due to his disagreement of the direction Sarin was taking. A few weeks ago they posted the biggest loss in European history of a whopping £14.9bn, primarily caused by writedowns of European networks that they paid far too much money for during the dotcom boom and excessive prices paid for 3G spectrum. While this loss is significant and Vodafone has £20bn in debt on it books things surely things can only be looking up for them, can't they? After all isn't the future of communications totally mobile?
Many people think so. Afterall, do you really need a landline phone if you have a mobile phone that can do exactly the same thing but is also portable? The big buzzword at the moment if you are a PSTN operator is convergence - being able to make your landline your mobile and your mobile your landline. However if you don't have a PSTN phone then why do you need convergence? Vodafone NZ's concept of having a local PSTN number for your mobile phone is a great idea and Telecom are so scared they currently won't let Vodafone launch the product due to a disagreement over the definition of "local call" termination. The fact Telecom are breaking their own rules every time a Telecom customer diverts their PSTN number to a
mobile phone seems to escape them. The problem is that there is currently a bottleneck when it comes to delivering internet access at broadband speeds using wireless. Telecom's EV-DO network kicks ass over Vodafone's WCDMA network and future upgrades for EV-DO are only going to enhance this offering. HSDPA and HSUPA are going to be a viable upgrade path for existing WCDMA operators but to be completely honest I'll believe HSDPA can handle 14.4 Mbit/s when I see it. Remember GPRS was always going to offer 144kbps? Yeah right..
People are now demanding broadband speeds for their internet access and in NZ at least Telecom are well
positioned to slam dunk Vodafone with their future upgrade path for EV-DO which turns it into an IP based mobile network combined with a core Next Generation Network that is once again IP based. Suddenly your one device does everything everywhere. The future of calling is VoIP and calls are going to be free. Period. Where does this leave Vodafone? Just as traditional telcos laughed at Skype a couple of years ago they have since realised that Skype is no laughing matter.
Vodafone's walled garden is suddenly going to haunt them as people realise that Vodafone simply can't give them the products & services they want at the price they want to pay. Google News delivered by WAP is amazing to use and best of all you're not stuck paying Live! prices. Vodafone need to realise that these days the mobile market is no different to any other FMCG product and that customers are a lot smarter than they were several years ago which really makes you wonder why it's still cheaper to head to many foriegn countries and roam on another GSM network because the prices are cheaper than roaming on a Vodafone network. People are disliking their heavily customised phones and in NZ at least Vodafone are simply being out marketed by Telecom where Kevin Kenrick has done to Vodafone what Vodafone spent many years doing to Telecom which is making them eat dirt.
Now back to Vodafone as a group. The talk over the past few days has been of a revolt against Sarin and several other board members by some large institutional shareholders. Whether or not this happens is anybody's guess but there can now be no disputing that their is turmoil at the top and that somebody or something has to break. There are some interesting times ahead..
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