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O2 CEO Ronan Dunne Interview: Why 4G Will Make Us Happier People

04/06/2013 16:20 BST | Updated 14/08/2013 11:22 BST
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Ronan Dunne, chief executive officer of Telefonica SA's U.K. unit, listens to a speaker during the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) annual conference at the Grosvenor House hotel in London, U.K., on Monday, Nov. 19, 2012. U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron said he plans to make it harder to apply for judge-led reviews of government decisions in the U.K., arguing the current system and other red tape are holding back projects needed to boost growth. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images

You might think 4G mobile service will just give you faster download speeds and acceptable streaming video on the train.

You're not thinking big enough.

O2/Telefonica UK CEO Ronan Dunne thinks 4G could change the world - and not just for mobile phone companies.

Under Dunne's leadership Telefonica UK just spent £550 million to set up its own 4G network due to launch this summer, following EE's exclusive LTE rollout at the end of last year.

It's the biggest shift in the mobile industry since Dunne took over the company in 2008, and he has to make it work. (Preferably with as few service interruptions as possible). But for him, the transition is about more than bits-per-second, it's about transforming the infrastructure of human achievement.

"The rollout to 4G will transform that balance of the haves and have nots," he said in an interview.

And to be fair to Telefonica UK, they have invested in many of these ideas. Its Wayra start-up lab has funded dozens of companies around the world, while its Think Big schools initiative has reached 300,000 students in Europe. Its next big event - the London Campus Party - will be held in September at the O2.

"For me this is personal - it's not about technology at all but the possibility technology creates and the behavioural change that it enables," Dunne said.

I'm not saying that just rolling out 4G solves world hunger overnight. But what it does do is enable a generation who have a much clearer conscience on doing well and doing good, whereas perhaps my generation thought 'work hard for a period time, and then at the end of my career I might have time to give something back'.

Now Telefonica has unveiled a new survey of so-called 'Millennials', people aged 18-30 who are tasked with leading the UK's technological revolution (until the next generation comes along).

The survey is revealing, showing that not only is the UK ahead - though marginally - of the global average in technological penetration, but is still beset by problems. Men are still far more confident and engaged in tech than women, it says, and people of all genders feel politically disenfranchised and economically fragile.

We caught up with Dunne to ask how ready the UK was to embark on another major tech transition - and how 4G might be the final piece in the puzzle.

This is a lightly edited version of a phone interview given to HuffPost UK.

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Q. Though they love tech, the Millennials generation you describe in the report are politically disaffected, overworked and quite poor. Has technology really made us happier?

People understand the possibility of technology, and the challenges of delivering on the promise.

The reason we were doing the research - and our takeaway - is we need to create the conditions for the embracing of technology -- and the awareness, and savvyness, of this generation to achieve what one of our speakers [at the FT-Telefonica Millennials Summit on 4 June, 2012] described as, they want to do well but they also want to do good. At the moment they're concerned as to whether the education they're getting is setting them up for the transition between school and work, they're a bit more open to being entrepreneurs but they're not sure that they have the support or what it takes.

Q. How do you do influence that transition in a positive way as a business? Can you really make an impact?

What we're trying to do is take some of that insight and say, for us as a business and also for others, what are the things we can do to give those Millennials a better opportunity?

The rollout to 4G will transform that balance of the haves and have nots. One of the quotes from this morning was there are a billion people on the internet now, there will be five billion within ten years. The vast majority of that additional connectivity will be mobile, either in the US or lesser developed markets in South America, Africa and Asia. Our 4G service will launch later in the summer and we're committed to 98% coverage, which is a step-change in the ubiquity of connectivity.

… We're doing things like going into schools with the Telefonica Think Big school programme to make sure that people understand better digital literacy, and the skills they have or could develop for the workplace. We're celebrating all that's good about embracing technology with the Campus Party in September in London, which is sort of like a Glastonbury for Geeks. But not just celebrating the engagement with technology but placing it in an environment which says these are important digital skills, with real jobs.

… The third piece is making sure that people have the confidence to embrace information sharing… and we have to make sure there is transparency there about what information is stored, who stores it and for what purpose, how it's kept protected but also how it can be used to enhance services either in your citizenship role or your consumer role. The Millennials recognise that information is at the heart of this but haven't developed the same confidence or competence around information management as they have around engagement.

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Q. As the mobile internet and the web generally mature and grow, aren't most of us - especially with the rise of 4G and high bit-rate mobile video - going to be consumers? Is that such a bad thing?

I think even in consuming - if you're able to consume more efficiently, more effectively in a way that allows you to have success on your own terms, that's where things like flexible working can make a difference… Now we have with 4G the opportunity to make the underlying technology worthy of the ambition. For me this is personal - it's not about technology at all but the possibility technology creates and the behavioural change that it enables.

In that context even for consumers rather than creators, they can adjust the terms on which they can define doing well as well as doing good. I think there's something in this for everyone. I'm not saying that just rolling out 4G solves world hunger overnight. But what it does do is enable a generation who have a much clearer conscience on doing well and doing good, whereas perhaps my generation thought 'work hard for a period time, and then at the end of my career I might have time to give something back'.

Q. We've had 4G in the UK for about six months - albeit not from O2. How do you think that rollout has gone, and has it started to change customer behaviour in the ways your describing?

Until the market goes 4G, some of the changes that will be obtained by ubiquitous won't happen yet. The second thing we recognise is that just doing what you did yesterday, but a bit faster, might have some value for a short period. But it's really about how it allows you to change. This is what we have to do as a brand - bring 4G technology to life to our customers and proving that this connectivity is the oxygen for their digital lives.

… That's the approach we'll be taking. It won't all change over night. We launch later in the summer and like all of our competitors we will then have a roll-out programme. But what I think you'll see is a step-change in the dialogue of the marketplace from being one operator having something the others don't, to this is a 4G market and what does this mean? At that stage there will be choice of provider and the confidence that everybody will have access to this over the next couple of years.

ronan dunne

Above: Campus Party Europe will see 10,000 young people engage in talks, hacks and forums from 5-7 September in London and across Europe

Q. Are you still confident that O2's bottom line allows you to keep taking a 'leadership' role in things like digital education and start-ups?

Well, on the last quarter it's nice to see that O2 is back where at it should be at the front of the market. There's no complacency on our part but the resonance of our brand has never reduced. What I've acknowledged over the last 18 to 24 months is that at times people's aspirations to be O2 customers wasn't matched with their perception of affordability…

We've addressed that by investing back into the customer in areas like a refresh of our key tariffs… [and] a massive shift in the model with the introduction of Refresh… The other thing we've tried to do is in areas like Priority Moments we give something back.

I think we've got balance about right. I think everyone in the market still has the challenge that prices in the UK are very low. And we have to make sure that we continue to be able to invest in innovation, not just building networks but building the innovative products and services that go on those networks.

Q. The report shows a significant gender gap in the way that men and women value and have confidence in technology. Why do you think that is, and what can be done about it?

It's interesting because it's not just a UK phenomenon. It comes across all over in the survey. In some respects it's a positive that while there is a gap, the proportion of women who think technology is important and relevant in their lives is about two-thirds of women. Without in any way ignoring the point, I would see it as, we've got a significant increase… What we now have to make sure is in the way we deliver products and services that we make sure our retail stores, work environment and all programmes we support are equally attractive to every section in society.