For the past few years, Vodafone has been treating its UK workforce like a bad haircut that demands repeat trips to the barber. In its 2018 fiscal year, average headcount fell by 859 jobs to 12,379. Another 854 went in the most recent one, giving it 11,525 employees at the last reckoning. That means about 13% of jobs have been cut in just two years.
A common assumption was that most job losses had been on the customer services side of the business, where the introduction of artificially intelligent "chatbots" has been widely reported. Vodafone UK has been in the vanguard of this movement, launching a chatbot called TOBi that relies heavily on Watson, IBM's artificial intelligence platform, and can now deal with most customer queries.
But it turns out that staff in network roles have felt most of the pain. That has come partly because Vodafone has been ditching older systems, including some of the "legacy" equipment it picked up with its £1 billion ($1.3 billion) takeover of Cable & Wireless Worldwide in 2012. In total, the operator has turned off 16 legacy networks and shut down more than 200 applications, according to Scott Petty, the chief technology officer of Vodafone UK.
Thanks to advances in automation, Vodafone needs far fewer network employees than it did 25 years ago, Petty explained during a recent meeting with reporters. And it will require an even smaller number in the next five to seven years. "To run a core node for 5G, you don't need anybody," he said. "It is all automated and you use SDN [software-defined networking] to control it."
In the meantime, Petty has been helping to clear out Vodafone's network operations centers (NOCs), buildings filled with the kind of brightly lit computer screens usually seen in TV shows like Homeland and 24. "We have been focusing heavily on moving to zero-touch NOCs, which means automating what we have in the NOCs," he said. Vodafone used to need about 1,500 people to manage its NOCs. Today, the staff number is in the "low-single-digit hundreds," Petty revealed.
Over time, Petty expects it to go down to the "small tens" as additional systems are automated. "Five to seven years from now, there will be a very small number of people that run the NOC infrastructure," he said. "The way we run networks is fundamentally changing."
Vodafone is certainly not the only telco that is hollowing out its NOCs. Last year, Finnish mobile operator Elisa claimed to have an entirely zero-person NOC and said humans are used only in the event of a big problem. "If there is a major issue in the network the robots call them and they can check it and deal with it straight away, but the tickets and alarms are automated in the network and the machine [usually] reboots the basestation or does changes automatically," said Snorre Nordrum Solvang, a business manager at Elisa, during a tradeshow in Madrid. "We are also implementing this so that the machines follow the key performance indicators."
MYCOM OSI, a vendor of cloud-based software tools, says other operators are interested in going the same way. "They are all talking about concepts like dark NOCs, automated NOCs or even going NOCless," said Mounir Ladki, the company's chief technology officer, during an interview with Light Reading in May last year.
It is not all bad news for Vodafone's network employees. As requirements change, the operator has a greater need for its own software and technology developers than it did in the past. "We are reprofiling and insourcing developers," said Petty, indicating that several hundred people have now been recruited for these roles. But the overall trend is down, he explains. "That is the way the technology evolves. 5G is incredibly efficient and you need fewer people to do it."
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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading