Reacting to the situation caused by the coronavirus outbreak, Vodafone Hungary has introduced measures aiming to help the public, followed by action supporting companies. In addition, educational content was also made available free of charge. In recent weeks, the company purchased new spectrum worth close to HUF 40 billion to expand its 5G network and, on April 1, officially completed its legal merger with UPC. We discussed these changes with István Király, Business Unit Director at Vodafone Hungary.
BBJ: Coronavirus aside, that’s a lot of new developments in such a short period.
István Király: Many developments have indeed just become visible to the general public recently; however, their preparation began much earlier. The deployment of the 5G network is a prime example of this, as it was a flagship project for which preparations had begun many years ago; we purchased 5G-capable frequencies back in 2016. Mass deployment, however, will only become possible after the current auction.
BBJ: Talking of 5G, why was it necessary to purchase additional spectrum in the tender opened by the National Media and Infocommunications Authority (NMHH)?
IK: To put it briefly, this step was extremely important for the industry, as the frequencies purchased now are prerequisites to building a wider coverage on 5G network. Basically, there are three major benefits to fifth-generation (5G) networks, which allow the industry to take digitalization to the next level and bring new technologies to our daily lives: speed, capacity and no latency. The current 4G capacity can handle about 100,000 devices per square kilometer, while the new network can manage up to 10 times as many; approximately one million devices, without interruption. Incidentally, due to the lack of latency, machine-to-machine communication can also advance significantly.
BBJ: Why is that lack of latency so important?
IK: 5G and NB-IoT [Narrowband Internet of Things] are industry’s future communication platforms and, for efficiency reasons, will be gradually integrated into all industrial modernization programs. They will bring about the same revolutionary change in the industry as the internet, mobile phones and mobile data services did in their time for low cost flights, travel, the hotel industry, logistics and so on.
The spread of the 5G network is a prerequisite to a lot of IoT and NB-IoT development, and it is thanks to this that we can realize concepts such as the “smart city”, where sensors show us free parking spaces, full bins, or simply help optimize public lighting systems.
The latter also ensures, for example, that self-driving cars can safely move about in a smart city by communicating with the sensors built into the transport infrastructure and also with each other, practically with no latency. I often say that, with only a slight exaggeration, any major car manufacturing company can make a self-driving car, but it’s still risky to let them out on the roads, as the required regulatory conditions are not yet in place, and the transport infrastructure is not ready either.
The trick about self-driving is not autonomous movement, but the ability of the vehicle to properly communicate with its surroundings. If there were only self-driving cars on the roads, the process would be much easier to control; the biggest challenge will most probably be the “mixed mode of operation”.
BBJ: When might self-driving vehicles, remote diagnostics, smart cities and so on become reality in Hungary?
IK: This is a long-term process that will realistically be in the focus of developments in the next 10+ years; a kind of evolution. We must not think that all the benefits it offers can be realized in the first year.
When it comes to 5G, for now, we are at the stage of some very promising tests. In order to support the mass use of these smart solutions, sensors must be installed at as many points as possible, and for that, having a new network capable of providing stable and high-capacity communication between devices is essential.
We often say that 4G brought about the age of smartphones, and 5G will be the network facilitating the mass use of smart devices. Luckily, we can already see such future solutions locally. Last year, for example, we brought a car that can be remotely controlled via a 5G connection to Hungary and, at the end of the year, we demoed a self-parking service together with AImotive and HERE Technologies, in the underground car park of the Vodafone head office building.
I believe that in the next few years, manufacturers will also begin to develop 5G-capable products on a massive scale, and, as network coverage increases, more people in the industry will show interest in such solutions. We are expecting this technology to spread in clusters; first we want to cover the busiest parts of larger cities, industrial parks and universities, and this may happen in Hungary in the coming years.
BBJ: More immediately, in your view, what kind of impact will the coronavirus outbreak have on Hungary’s economy?
IK: A huge number of companies are already affected. Some car manufacturers have temporarily suspended production, and tens of thousands of people may be forced to take a break or have already lost their jobs. Because of the spread of the coronavirus, since mid-March, the vast majority of office workers in Hungary have been forced to find a way of working from home. Many businesses, large companies and, indirectly, employees are affected by the current situation. The most important thing is to keep companies running smoothly in remote operation. I believe that for this they can rely on Vodafone today, and will continue to be able to do so in the future.
BBJ: How is Vodafone supporting companies?
IK: We have made available an additional 15GB of data allowance to customers, activated on request, and we have also committed to fast-tracking payments to our small business suppliers, reducing the payment deadline to 15 days, to support them during this difficult time. In addition, all our business clients can upgrade to a larger internet access option without signing a loyalty agreement.
This means that customers can opt out of the larger data option at any time, in which case the original data allowance and loyalty period will be reinstated, free of charge. The larger data packages can be activated by customers over the phone or through key customer service points. In response to the increased data usage resulting from working from home, we are offering the option of an extraordinary bandwidth extension for existing leased line services. Business clients can request this service through their account managers.
We offer services that can help in the current period, such as the Vodafone Office service, which automatically redirects calls routed to the central switchboard to the mobile phones of colleagues staying at home. We also use this solution.
In addition, we have simplified our ordering and contracting procedures for all clients, facilitating the discussion of terms and conditions and the conclusion of the agreement by phone, in almost all instances.
Finally, Vodafone Hungary has made remote learning-related sites available to all its customers without data usage, until the end of the school year. We have also made all content related to the Vodafone Digital Classroom Program free of charge, where modern, 21st-century learning materials facilitate the better understanding of the curriculum.