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DSEI 2021: Nimble telecoms giant eyes slice of defence market

15th September 2021 - 12:30 GMT | by Samuel Beal in London

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Vodafone is exhibiting at DSEI for the first time this year. (Photo: Sam Beal)

First-time DSEI exhibitor Vodafone wants to find military customers for its 5G network and other services.

More conventionally associated with a world of fumbly SIM cards than military gadgetry, Vodafone is using DSEI 2021 to reaffirm plans to bolster its presence in the defence industry.

The event in London on 14-17 September marks the first time that Vodafone has exhibited at DSEI.

Andrea Dona, chief network officer for the telecommunications company, explained that Vodafone technology — in particular its 5G network — is now mature enough for military applications.

He told Shephard: ‘It now brings the best of our network capability to the defence market in terms of additional capability... combining with our mobile edge computing and Internet of Things [IoT], we can see that it really lends itself to the needs of the MoD.’ 

Dona noted that in an era where militaries are swamped with ever more data and calls intensify for a worldwide web of C2, the need to process such raw inputs quickly over a connected IoT is a priority.

‘Our technology is now mature enough to deliver meaningful services now,’ he said.

Dona pointed to Vodafone’s mobile private network (MPN) technology, already used in locations as shipping ports, as perfectly suited for remote military operations. While a commercial network provides a consistent, if unremarkable, signal strength, Vodafone’s MPN 5G technology can dedicate parts of the network to where needs must.

‘I can dedicate part of the network to a particular user should they need a faster speed or quality of response,’ he explained. ‘Whether they’re analysing night-vision footage, or the X-rays of someone on the field... we can tailor the network to the specific military needs.’ 

Asked by Shephard how Vodafone intended for its MPN technology to work in a degraded environment, Dona explained the technology was ‘secure by design’. 

Yet the biggest challenge in digitising defence through Vodafone’s commercial technology — the IoT, 5G and cloud services — is the perception (false or otherwise) of a culture clash with the military establishment.

‘I want to shake off the idea that we’re stuck in the past, [but] the MoD also has this image of being stuck in the past.’

Dona explained that standardising computational legacy platforms and practices is essential to craft a nimbler fighting force. Many current methods of operating, collecting data or connecting systems ‘are a Spaghetti Junction, and we need to unravel it’.

However, Dona announced Vodafone would work with the MoD to revamp its networks piecemeal; rather than implementing radical change immediately, the key will be to strike a balance between the old and the new.

‘You can’t bring a young programmer straight out of a master’s degree without them understanding the programming needed. You cannot get rid of the old military workforce,’ he said.

Amid lingering fears that the existing IoT and 5G infrastructure is too reliant on China and uncompetitive, Dona remained diplomatic. ‘Diversity is definitely lacking in our supply chain. We’ve got ourselves into a situation where we’re relying on too few vendors.’

His solution is a radical break in a telecommunications industry often portrayed as something of a closed cartel. ‘We want to open [our network] to new players in areas that they have expertise in.’ He points to industrial cooperation in technologies like Open RAN, as Vodafone has done with telecoms giant Samsung in Europe. 

Above all Dona hoped to prove that applying the best of commercial technology to defence is not merely an aspiration.

Referring to 5G, IoT, mobile and private mobile networks, as well as mobile edge computing such as Amazon Web Services, he asserted that ‘showing how that technology can be applied to defence is part of Vodafone’s strategy’.

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