The Meetup phenomenon must have done wonders for rooms above pubs. One wonders what they were ever used for back in the dark ages when people went straight home after work and sat sadly in their living rooms, curtains drawn, bathed in the glow of the telly, waiting for Newsnight to finish so that they could check all of the doors in the house were locked before they went to bed and thought about their next day’s work.
Thank goodness for the internet and Meetup.com then because now we can do our plotting and scheming and thinking together! Taking refreshment in the company of others and hearing about what they do between the hours of 9 and 5 is strangely enjoyable, who knew! A big thank-you to Nick Yockney and the Chelsea App Factory for putting on a special night, the first in a series of talks and networking nights they are laying on to warm the cockles and burnish the intellects of the technically minded and sociable, not as rare a combo as you might think. The pursuit of ‘appyness, you could call it!
Guest speaker Mansoor Hanif thinks about making the UK the best connected country in the world by introducing it to the miracle that is 4G broadband access. In fact, he doesn’t just think about it, he makes it happen on behalf of his paymasters EE, who headhunted him and brought him back to the UK after a peripatetic career that includes spells in France, Spain, where he now lives, Moldova, and most other places you can think of. Listening to him, you get the impression that he would have happily taken on this challenge for free. He is definitely not your average 9-5-er. He thinks of the UK as a “green and pleasant land”, the only trouble being how hard that makes it to lay a cable so that the North of Wales, or an oil tanker off the Shetland isles, for example, can get any decent reception.
The fate of EE is inextricably tied up with the fate of 4G, and for that we can blame Mansoor and his team. A 4G evangelist, and very much ahead of his time, I am reliably informed by his ex-colleague turned PR man Stuart Jackson, Mansoor only agreed to return to the UK because he believed the top brass at EE when they told him they felt the UK could be number 1 in the world for connectivity 3 years ago. At the time we were languishing behind Kazakhstan, and that kind of felt like a challenge to both Stuart and Mansoor! Shortly after they agreed to join, EE launched both themselves and their 4G offering at Battersea Power station. Quite a party, apparently. EE needed to get their message across, so no wonder Kevin Bacon was forced to do his homework on what makes us Brits tick!
The pressure has been on ever since: EE now has over 18,500 sites across the UK, and we pay 50% less for our broadband here than they do in the US. But are we satisfied? We are not, and that is what makes us such a tough market. That plus our aversion to mobile masts running our beloved scenery, plus the competitive, over-crowded marketplace. The quality of EE’s 4G, Mansoor pointed out, really had to be perfect.
So how does one achieve perfection? Think Star Wars, but with all the films in the right order. This is the strategy followed by EE, whose project will not be fully realised until 2020, when 4G becomes 5G, and the cycle, presumably, begins again. So what will happen in the meantime? 40% of the UK is on 4G, and the oft maligned broadband of East London’s Tech City will be fully 4G one year before Silicon Valley. Mansoor’s commitment to the cause was beginning to shine through. What are the keys to EE’s success? There are 3 of them: a bold strategy, clear vision and communication, and brilliant delivery and execution. Not so easy even if you know how!
The trouble with the UK telecoms industry says engineer Mansoor is that for years it seemed to be run by lawyers and bankers, not engineers. It made it hard to get anything done, like putting up a mobile mast or digging up roads to lay fibre optic cable (nobody’s perfect!) Did you know the ideal frequency for broadband is 1800 megabytes: too low, and not enough users can access it, too high, it doesn’t travel far enough. EE has been leveraging its first mover advantage as provider of 4G, by employing people like Mansoor. Believe him when he tells you that it was no coincidence that the iPhone 5 was the first ever 4G compatible device
Significant competitive differentiation is not easy to manage but EE is finally ahead of the competition. Mansoor believes that London has the fastest broadband of any large city and that this is largely down to EE, who swept the board for mobile awards in 2014 after a disappointing couple of years led him and his team to make a promise to themselves not to be the fall guys any more. They were consistently the best network for performance and reliability with a call success rate above 99.6% and minimal buffering when accessing the web from mobiles. No mean achievement.
Mansoor’s mantra is that user experience must match user expectation, it is only when this has been achieved that he will feel that the job is done. He calls it the “stairway to heaven”, but the final steps, the last 20%, is always the hardest part. Its 4 years away, according to Mansoor. We are a mobile centric society and augmented reality is our goal, therefore staying ahead of the curve means making people’s lives easier in ways that they probably haven’t yet thought of themselves. Wifi calling? Sounds simple but it requires a massive operational shift and represents a huge challenge for engineers. Data analytics and customer insight will play a significant part, and that is why EE have launched a new Mobile Edge Computing Innovation Centre in Bath to allow the public and other businesses to help with the pursuit of excellence.
Things are looking up for the future of Broadband in the UK now that the public has come to terms with what it takes to get connected; 150 villages will receive a micro-meshed version of 4G for rural areas this year. a future version of this technology could soon be introduced to stadiums, (including Wembley who EE are partnering with), shopping centres and anywhere that sees large numbers of people congregating. Memory cache could be reprogrammed daily, and the data that users will provide will provide no end of useful insight and analytics. How do people use their connection to enhance their experiences?
Innovation is tricky and the stakeholders obviously hold the key to the conundrum. Customers are moving closer to the “edge of computing” capability, beginning to understand how they can manage workflow in places like airports and hotels, anywhere where a “reality use case” can be explored. Response time is critical; “reliably quick” is what Mansoor thinks EE needs to be.
His conclusion was that he is proud to be working at such a company as EE, proud of the values that make them what they are, and eager to work with anybody who recognises the importance of what they mean. Clearly a science fiction fan, Hanif believes we must “boldly go” where we haven’t been before, and wants EE to be like a “blue whale ecosystem”, dragging others along with it as it makes its way through space and time on a predetermined path that is in the best interests of all. Finally, we must be brilliant and creative, and these are the traits he sees all around him across the UK, even in those hard to connect places that have proved resistant to even the most determined internet evangelist. Fear not, North Wales, Mansoor is coming!
We think of ourselves here in the UK as in possession of a fine sense of humour. Mansoor believes we should all have our own YouTube channels; everybody, after all, carries an incredibly powerful HD camera around in their pockets, we should be sharing our experiences as much as we can, for the sake of entertainment, if nothing else. Evenings like this one certainly help to propagate that belief. Intense and data rich but also friendly and fun, a great opportunity to mingle and learn over a beer and, in this case, meat, fish and veg platters were literally heaving, had barmaids staggering under their weight, but somehow seemed to disappear in the blink of an eye. And just like that, it was over. Can’t wait to hear what’s on the menu next time…
Chelsea Apps Talks is organized by Nick Yockney and sponsored by Chelsea App Factory. Visit their Meet-up site for details of the next event. Mansoor Hanif is Director of Radio Networks at EE.