Big Interview

Vodafone bets on messaging

Ravinder Lota_995.jpg

Natalie Bannerman speaks to Ravinder Lota about how the mobile world is evolving and where Vodafone Carrier Services sees its place in the future of messaging.

The future is mobile, or so I’ve heard. Messaging, SMS, RCS, A2P and P2P dominate our headlines as the industry continues to innovate in the face of growing security concerns, increasing data demands and accelerating mobility at a global scale.

One such leader in this space is Ravinder Lota, senior vice president of Vodafone Messaging Hub (VMH) at Vodafone Carrier Services. In his role, Lota is charged with providing data and messaging solutions for communications service providers.

“The way Vodafone has organised itself within the messaging space over the last few years is to essentially create an internal hub, which we refer to as the VMH,” he says.

“It is a combination of different functions. Number one, it acts as a firewall around the whole Vodafone group of companies so half a billion subscribers are all covered by that one single firewall and we use that to protect our subscribers – you know, against spam messages getting through that hub. This is essentially the piece of the business that I manage and through that hub we also then connect with business senders.”

As all conversations about mobile tend to go, we venture into the topic of 5G. From Lota’s perspective he has seen messaging evolve over the last few years, experiencing a huge amount of growth. He sees 5G as an enabler of this messaging growth rather than a disruptor in its own right.

“I think 5G acts as a catalyst to pushing messaging even more closely to the primary medium for communi-cation, and ultimately it drives innovation and I see our role in the messaging team as kind of creating that secure scalable environment where innovation can take place.”

In his part of the business, they aren’t “designing any specific features around 5G,” he says. “5G will give me extra bandwidth, a lower latency and a richer form of communication. But we don’t believe that extra bandwidth and latency is something that is acting as an engaging factor.”

In keeping with this idea that 5G is more of a catalyst and a vehicle for further messaging advancements, he thinks more of the innovation will lie in emerging technologies such as automation, artificial intelligence (AI) or machine-to-machine (M2M).

Central role in AI

Lota says that, with or without 5G, AI and automation are needed by the marketplace. “Messaging is playing a central role in making that happen.”

A good example of these two coming together is the use of chatbots, something that is more and more prevalent for mobile operators.

“More merchants out there are starting to deploy chatbots as a means to enable automated communication between customers and a brand or enterprise.”

But, he says, AI will only accelerate this interaction, as both AI and chatbots are in the early days of development.

We all know that two-step factor authentication is the cornerstone of most modern-day authorisation processes.

Couple this with the increasing attack surface, as things become more interconnected, it’s fair to say messaging and mobile need to be robust enough to withstand any threats.

“Historically messaging was essentially an enabler for security. Whether it’s two-factor authentication or one-time passwords,” explains Lota.

Fraudulent activity

“But recently we’ve heard high- profile news stories about SIM fraud, SIM hacking and various examples of fraudulent activity, which has started to affect the messaging space.”

Lota says that, for its part, Vodafone has launched “an adjacent discipline, essentially a line to the GSMA Mobile Connect initiative, where we are using mobile identity, API-type capabilities to ensure that – in addition to SMS – there are attributes that the likes of banks can access”.

For example, a “very simple industry standard API to validate for example when the last time a SIM was swapped”.

We can’t sidestep one of the biggest trends of the last few years, Rich Communications Service (RCS). Reminding Lota that global penetration of RCS sits at around 12%, I wonder what his thoughts are at the assertion that it hasn’t reached the right levels of adoption to be considered a legitimate communications vehicle.

“Vodafone is a big supporter of RCS and is investing heavily to ensure that RCS is adopted across Vodafone,” says Lota.

He says 14 of the company’s networks so far are live on RCS, boasting that “if you happen to be one of those 12%, you are likely one of the Android users who are RCS-enabled on a Vodafone network where you can already send peer-to-peer messages in that format”.

The company has been very openly sharing the proofs of concept and initiatives, and it was planning to announce more at this year’s Mobile World Congress, before it was cancelled.

If that weren’t enough, he also says that Vodafone has begun adopting RCS internally, in order to communicate with its own subscribers.

Given Lota’s optimism for RCS, I was curious to know his thoughts on the assertion that MMS is a viable alternative until RCS is more widely adopted. “We support RCS. Sorry MMS,” says Lota jokingly. “MMS exists in our network and we enable it to flow where the demand is there, but we are not proactively going out there to invest heavily in it.”

Lota is considered a thought-leader in the industry, so I ask him about how he views the person-to-person (P2P) and application-to-person (A2P) space, primarily how the demands from the wholesale and enterprise community have changed over the years.

“P2P is in decline – due to the over-the-top (OTT) apps and the capabilities they give us,” he says. “That decline has actually slowed down significantly over the last few years and usage is starting to plateau, but it still trending downwards.”

The one dynamic he sees, something that the Vodafone Messaging hub is helping to address, is trying to extract economies of scale by moving international traffic to hubs.

Traditionally, a company like Vodafone UK would have 700 financial agreements with 700 destinations that UK subscribers could text to. But now operators need to apply skilled economies as they move to hubs.

“With Vodafone messaging they only need one connection to the property to give them external network, driving this trend towards hubbing. Even though it is declining, P2P is still an important channel for us,” he says.

As for A2P, Lota sees it as “continuing to grow”. Despite the fact that SMS is a few decades old, it still has growth potential, in his view. “Ensuring that our subscribers are able to communicate in whatever methods of messaging they wish – whether it is RCS, A2P or one of the other classifications, that is our goal,” he says.

As our conversation draws to a close, Lota reiterates that “messaging is extremely important and we believe in it, we are investing in it”. His specific focus for 2020 is to double down on every segment to retain the diversity of its offerings.

Innovating in SMS

“RCS is a priority and we haven’t stopped innovating in SMS. We just put a firewall in place, but vulnerabilities and the things trying to find a way in continue to evolve, so we are investing in AI technology to develop AI firewalls,” Lota explains.

Beyond that he is also backing mobile identity, which he says could replace two-step factor authentication because “the mobile identity features will just do that much more elegantly”.

He also mentions Cloud Numbers, a project that RCS is developing that will enable functionality that allows for conversational SMS.

“We are making it so that those numbers can be used for communicating over voice as well,” says Lota.

To date the text-only version of Cloud Numbers is live but the voice-and-text version is “coming very soon”.