Last week, I attended the opening of Vodafone’s new innovation center in Redwood City called the “Vodafone Xone”. The Vodafone Xone center provides technical expertise and test facilities for start-ups to create proof-of-concept trials quickly. I’d like to note the “proof of concept” is different than I have an idea. Proof of concept means you probably have a prototype of a service or device and need access to the infrastructure to test features. The center provides access a miniature replica of Vodafone’s global 2G, HSPA, and LTE networks and links to Verizon Wireless’s 4G LTE network with connections to Verizon’s 4G LTE facilities in Waltham and San Francisco. It also acts as another outlet for Vodafone Ventures to assess potential investments, which means that it offers potential financial support for start-ups as well.
The opening offered a wide range of demos from start-ups. For example, NantLink that allows you to link to content through the visual and voice-activated search as well as receive product info and incentives directly on your mobile phone. What I have gathered from all of my recent innovation center tours is that Mobile Health has been deemed the next big thing. The Vodafone center was no exception. Vitality demonstrated Glowcaps, which are wireless enabled caps that fit prescription bottles to enable personal reminders, social network service, as well as pharmacy coordination and reports. Nantworks and Tensorcom showcased a smart sensors and transceiver platform that allows real-time wireless monitoring of physiological vital signs.
I also had the pleasure of interviewing the Group CTO of Vodafone Steve Pusey and the Group R&D Director Siavash Alamouti. They revealed that the innovation center currently has 35 active trials. I asked many questions about the future vision for networks etc. Mr. Pusey started with the basics and stated that the main job was to increase 3G penetration from 80% to near 100%. “Getting LTE everywhere” Mr. Pusey stated “getting data everywhere Vodafone has voice service is a priority.” Mr. Alamouti talked about Vodafone’s network vision. We discussed the move from macro to hierarchal cell structures, from centralized to distributed processing and from dumb charging to smart charging. For me, one of the most interesting areas of our meeting was out we discussion on creating a smart brokerage of telecom functions. This basically opens up aspects of the carrier network for start-ups to use in their services. Imagine app providers having access to Vodafone’s authentication, billing and customer care services via APIs. The startup can then integrate these functions into its products and focus on their unique value instead of building features like messaging or billing. More than six years ago, I described a vision similar to this when I was at Forrester Research. I called it the communications service delivery platform. It is great to see operators picking up on this vision and enhancing it.
Vodafone is a large global wireless brand. It is a testament to the valley that they are attracting interest from International wireless carriers. Four years ago, many would’ve said that wireless innovation was being driven outside of the U.S. The move to a “mobile app” centered market has lead many entrepreneurs and large companies such as carriers to invest in a Silicon Valley presence as one of the hot beds of innovation. I personal believe there are several geographically dispersed hotbeds that focus on different aspects of innovation. For example, Africa is a hotbed for changes in mobile money and India focuses on providing cost-effective infrastructure and devices that meet the amazing demand for both connectivity and value-added services. I hope Vodafone will bring some of its learning’s from the international markets to Silicon Valley wireless entrepreneur