Virgin Media O2: First steps to an autonomous network

Virgin Media O2: First steps to an autonomous network

Self-healing autonomous network will deliver a seamless customer experience as Virgin Mobile O2 rolls out 5G following £31b merger

Trust is the most valuable commodity in the world, according to Matias Quintanilla, Head of Customer Experience Monitoring at Virgin Media O2, who is working to ensure a seamless move into an automated world where networks can run via Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithms and a service orchestration layer.

Quintanilla points out how Virgin Media O2 is already working to achieve autonomous networks through data analytics and AI “one use- case at a time” as such a monumental shift cannot be resolved with a “big bang”.

“It is a journey where you need to build your automation by defining one use-case at a time - what I call the magic triangle - which is data, processes and platforms,” comments 

Quintanilla, who joined O2 (Telefonica UK) in 2018, transferring from Telefonica in Argentina. 

Two years later Quintanilla was working in London when the £31b merger, by O2 owner Telefonica and Virgin Media parent Liberty Global took place in June 2021 - one of the biggest UK mergers in a decade and the largest UK telecoms deal ever. According to O2’s website, O2 and Virgin Media will continue to exist separately, as well as together as they move forward.

“The merger sees the largest and most reliable mobile network combined with the fastest broadband provider in the UK with a very clear mission to upgrade the nation,” said Quintanilla whose role is to focus on customer experience monitoring. 

“The shift to an autonomous network is a marathon not a sprint,” said Quintanilla. The future network is designed to run with minimal human intervention, and is able to configure, monitor, and maintain itself independently. 

For a man who has the human touch - always working to ensure the welfare of his colleagues and customers - Quintanilla is now focused on building trust in the future of autonomous networks as the repercussions of the merger start to settle.

How Virgin Mobile O2 will supercharge the market 

As two of the most iconic brands Virgin Mobile and O2 - which combine 47 million+ broadband, mobile, phone and home subscribers, and around 18,000 employees - have come together in the merger to give the UK more choice, value and pave the way for 5G across the UK.

O2 is the UK’s biggest mobile phone operator with around 41.6 million customers across its networks, which also include giffgaff, Tesco Mobile, Sky Mobile and Lycamobile. Virgin Media has around 5.7 million customers. 

“The merger is a 50/50 joint venture between, Liberty group and Telefonica group, who decided to take us on this adventure which is very exciting,” said Quintanilla who will be overseeing the customer experience during this journey and is keen to focus on the future of autonomous networks, the rollout of 5G and how the merger will benefit customers.

“We are supercharging our proposition with our service called Volt and the best thing is that simply being a customer of both brands already gives you benefits, such as twice the broadband speed, plus twice the mobile data, and supercharged connectivity at home or on the move.”

A total of 210 UK cities currently have access to 5G, but Quintanilla says there is a drive to upgrade by 2023 which will benefit its business and domestic customers.

“We already have 99% population coverage with 4G and we have made a promise to upgrade our fixed network to full fibre to the premises (FTTP) by 2028, which is a huge upgrade of our network, and see 50% population coverage with 5G in 2023.

By offering 5G and gigabit broadband all under one roof, Virgin Media O2 customers can experience next-generation connectivity both in and out of the home, allowing them to take advantage of the latest technology on offer.

“We believe this is what our customers need,” said Quintanilla. “I think 4G and 5G are both very important pillars in this merger. We have upgraded more than 85,000 postcodes this year with 4G and reached 210 cities with 5G. Plus we have started delivering low band spectrum sites, which will increase the coverage that 5G offers to our customers, especially indoors.

Magic triangle of autonomous networks

“The shift to an autonomous network is a marathon not a sprint. But you have to start and take it one use-case at a time,” said Quintanilla.

An autonomous network is designed to run with minimal intervention, and is able to configure, monitor, and maintain itself independently. Automation itself, and the idea that technologies could be self-provisioning, self-diagnosing, and self-healing, has been around for some time. But with advances in AI and cloud technologies, it is rapidly becoming a reality.

“There is not a big bang solution - you do not go from not being automated to suddenly being fully automated. It is a gradual journey to build your automation, through data analytics and AI, by defining one use-case at a time - what I call the magic triangle - which is data, processes and platforms.

“You start by automating one part of your day-to-day work. Make sure that you have the right data, the right processes and the right platforms in place, once you have that you develop that use case, and then you start the next and then the next one until you get to that fully autonomous network of the future that we all think about today.”

Quintanilla commented it is vital you engage your employees on your journey to autonomous ways of working. “One of the biggest problems is that people believe their jobs are going to be taken over by machines. In fact automation should be about enabling people to do more interesting jobs - rather than repetitive jobs - that can deliver better value to the company.” 

Self-healing networks

Commenting on how far Virgin Media O2 is on their road map to an autonomous network Quintanilla said they are “where they need to be” and highlighted how they are already using tools to self heal the network which is improving the customer experience.

“The tools allow us to self heal the network whenever we are having a problem if certain parameters are in place. For example if you were in the centre of London, where you have a lot of sites nearby, and one of the sites suddenly goes out of service the rest  can pick up the load and make small adjustments to ensure coverage is maintained.”

Quintanilla said it is vital for Virgin Media O2 to focus on autonomous networks today as the rollout of 5G across the UK will create more complex networks so they need to be ready.

“The future for VMO2 and the rest of the industry should look simple and see less from a customer experience perspective. The network should be able to ensure the highest level of service availability and the customer should not even care about which technology they are using. The only thing that should matter is whether they have connectivity or not and that’s it. Having connectivity should allow our customers to use all the services they require whenever they want it.”

Why trust is the most valuable commodity

Quintanilla points out how Virgin Media O2 is working to reinforce the trust of its customers and partners. “When we talk about the most valuable commodity, I thought at one point it was having the data to make the right decisions, or even money, but I came to realise the most valuable commodity you can have in the world is trust. In the end it all comes down to whether your customers and partners trust you to do business with you and help you achieve your potential as an organisation.”

Commenting on how the newly-merged company is focusing on this Quintanilla said it was all about clear communication, openness and clarity. “It is also important to be timely for our customers. This means getting a message to them before they realise they are having a problem and that gives them the confidence that Virgin Media O2 is dealing with it.” 

Power of partnerships

Quintanilla pointed out that Virgin Media O2 has two very specific partners who are helping them on their customer experience journey. These include Ookla, who recently acquired Spatialbuzz, and Nokia. 

Ookla's Spatialbuzz platform combines digital customer engagement tools with real-time insights into network issues and customer dissatisfaction. With Spatialbuzz, network improvements are prioritised based on customer impact — resulting in happier customers on a better network.

“Spatialbuzz is a platform that allows us to monitor our customer status checks - it’s all about putting the customer's lens on everything we do. If there's a lot of customers telling us something's wrong with the network, we set up an investigation for that area and we try to understand what's going on. At the same time we give customers the possibility to sign up so we can keep them posted with messages directly sent to their mobile phone.

“The dramatic change has been in being able to send bespoke messages actually telling our customers what was happening while they were having the incident, keeping them updated and then telling them the problem is solved which has been absolutely fantastic,” said Quintanilla.

“Clear and timely communication is vital for a positive customer experience and this was highlighted in our NPS surveys. I believe that this has been critical for the work we do from a customer experience perspective and helps us to build their trust.”

Virgin Media 02 is working with Nokia on the Customer Service Operations Centre tool which will allow them to bring together data sets from different data feeds that focuses on performance, configuration or active incidents in the network.

“With Nokia, we are in the last stages of implementing the solution which will give us the capability to be able to look at our customer services one by one. The perspective of data, and different services within data, will enable Virgin Media O2 to do a variety of things that will help us understand our customers better and give them better propositions. For example, enabling us to send more bespoke messages to them whenever we see that something's wrong. We will also get that root cause analysis that we need in a very automated way.

“We have been working with Nokia on this for the last two years. It has been a fantastic collaboration exercise and we are now starting to see its fruition.”

Commenting on plans for the future Quintanilla said; “There's a lot of benefit in bringing the mobile world and the fixed world together. Both companies have a wealth of experience so now that we're  Virgin Media O2, we need to find a way to get the best out of the two former organisations.”

On target for 100% gigabit broadband in UK 

Virgin Media O2 predicts it is on schedule to complete the rollout of gigabit broadband across its entire cable network of 15.5m homes.

It has been reported that 1.6 million properties, located across Lincoln, Bath, Lancaster, Fife, Huddersfield, Ipswich, Slough, Salisbury, can now access the company’s fastest speeds of 1.13Gbps, bringing the total number to 14.3 million which means they are now on track to reach the target of 15.5m.

Lutz Schüler, Chief Executive Officer at Virgin Media O2, said: “We’re making great strides ahead in upgrading the UK and are within touching distance of bringing the benefits of future-proof gigabit broadband to everyone on our network.

“With our gigabit rollout progressing at an unmatched pace, we’re building the next-generation broadband network that’s ready for the technology of tomorrow.”

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport – using ThinkBroadband data – revealed that more than 50% of UK homes now have access to gigabit broadband and praised Virgin Media O2 for its major contribution.

Virgin Media O2 has also recently announced its intention to upgrade its fixed network to full fibre to the premises (FTTP) with completion in 2028. This technology is capable of delivering symmetrical 10Gbps download and upload speeds meaning Virgin Media O2 will build on its existing leadership position today and be well equipped for the decades ahead as the demand for speed and capacity continues to rise.

Focus on sustainability with electric vehicles (EVs)

Virgin Media O2 has revealed the first electric vehicles (EVs) to be deployed across its fleet. The company has also ordered 280 new Vauxhall e-Vivaros to help engineers carry out installations and services, with a view to making its entire fleet of 4,300 vehicles electric by 2030.

“With a fleet of 4,300 vehicles visiting millions of homes and businesses every year, we have a responsibility to swap to cleaner, more sustainable alternatives as soon as possible,” said Tracey Herald, Head of Corporate Responsibility & Sustainability at Virgin Media O2.

Virgin Media O2 is also a participant in the 5G Connected & Autonomous Vehicles (CAVs) testbed and has a joint-venture called Liberty Charge which will use its cable infrastructure and expertise to support the deployment of charging points.

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