Fotis Karonis recently led one of the UK telecom sector’s most ambitious projects – to deploy a 4G network covering 98% of the population by 2014. As EE’s chief technology officer, you might have expected him to be something of a dry technocrat. But as he unfolds the challenges, Karonis comes over as affable and interesting. He pauses in mid flow to check that Mobile was aware that the word for technology has its roots in the Greek for art? He says: ‘Engineering is an art and is an art of providing brilliance to the customer... We want to impress and do great things that make sense to people and impacts their lives.’
For just under a year and a half, EE has been trying to shift its network to be 4G ready. While a cynical view of targets could be that they are set to be easily broken, EE’s figures have been impressive, with plans to bring 4G to more than 65 towns and cities by June 2013. This would mean that half of the UK’s population would be covered, with at least 80% of a city able to access a 4G signal.
This two-year project had a very sudden start. EE CEO Olaf Swantee has been praised for how quickly he cut through a company seemingly frozen after the merger of Orange and T-Mobile and took the same approach to the network plans. Karonis says conversations began within days of Swantee joining the company in September 2011. ‘I was not a very good expert,’ Karonis, who was then chief information officer, defers, ‘but I thought we needed to act with ambition to deploy an LTE network in the UK. If we were integrating two networks, as we were with Orange and T-Mobile, I thought we should give it purpose. This is the fastest growing market in all of Europe, with one of the highest levels of smartphone adoption. Why not try to be ahead of the curve?’
Never happy, never relaxed
So what was Karonis’ deadline for drafting together a plan? ‘Olaf then told me to get him a new strategy within two weeks.’ A tall order, but you get the impression that underneath Karonis’ collegial and friendly manner, somewhat betrayed by his press photo, there is a very driven executive. Among his former roles are working at Athens International Airport, a business that is no stranger to strict deadlines. At another point of the interview he says: ‘We are never happy... there’s never a relaxed attitude.’ He adds: ‘We applied measures that weren’t terribly conventional in the network world. We decided that we should set out what we wanted to do, which run rates we needed to hit and so forth, and by what time, then work backwards from there.’
Karonis said the initial focus was on getting partners involved, spanning manufacturers, IT businesses and infrastructure companies. He says: ‘We had open communication with them as far as we could. Given some of the important secrets, we could only share them with a small team of people.’
At launch, Karonis says the operator concentrated on those towns with the biggest population centres and best transmission. However, Vodafone launched a broadside late last year, when it said its forthcoming 4G service would offer better indoor coverage, with EE promising only 98% outdoor reception.
Karonis defends this move, arguing indoor coverage is strong and will improve as the network works on improving density in areas that already have 4G. He says: ‘Mobility is about people on the move. At home, people have a tendency to connect their devices using Wi-Fi. What we really cared about is the mobile issue.’
While 70% of the population will have 4G by the end of the year, it is the last stage that will prove most difficult, as the operator spends 12 months working to bring next generation services to the remaining 30%, mostly in remote rural areas. Karonis plays down suggestions that the rollout could be delivered far ahead of schedule. He says: ‘The last mile is very hard. I would love that. Seventy per cent is a good approach for this year. It’s pretty aggressive already. But by the time we get to the tail, it becomes really hard because the focus will be on geographical areas, not on population coverage.’ No time for a relaxed attitude then.