Over the past two months, I have been watching with fascination the contretemps in Australia involving the telecommunications company Vodafone. Many folks in the US have never heard of the company, but the UK-headquartered company is the largest telecom company in the world by revenue and the second largest by subscribers. It also has a 45% ownership stake in Verizon Wireless here in the US.
Vodafone's recent troubles, which the company has blamed on software-related issues, began in earnest in November of last year. According to this story in Sydney Morning-Herald on the 10th of December,
"Vodafone chief technology officer Michael Young said ... that there were two distinct problems plaguing the network. ..
"The first issue, related to data performance during tasks such as web browsing, was caused by "unstable" software which prevented Vodafone from increasing capacity on its network...
"[The second] Young blamed ... on software 'that was creating extra signalling traffic' in CBD [Central Business District] areas that were already experiencing increased load."
As a result of the second software problem, calls were being dropped and were unable to be reconnected. This made customer understandably very angry.
Vodafone said that in the first instance, it had reverted back to the previous version of the software, and upgraded its capacity. In regard to software issue number two, the company said that it had fixed the problem in early December, and claimed that network performance would be back to normal shortly.
Vodafone customers were more than a bit skeptical at that news, since the week before in an article in The Daily Telegraph CTO Young had been downplaying the extent of Vodafone's network problems and claiming that the problems had been 90% fixed. (As anyone involved in software development knows, saying a software problem is 90% fixed is tantamount to admitting that said problem is no where close to actually being fixed.)
CTO Young also disputed numerous customer complaints that they were waiting excessively for their trouble calls to be answered by Vodafone's customer service representatives.
In the following Morning-Herald story, however, CTO Young admitted that maybe customers weren't getting the help they should have from Vodafone's customer care representatives after all.
CTO Young's words of encouragement on the 10th were quickly overshadowed on the 11th of December when Vodafone suffered a major network outage for several hours in Western Australia. A Vodafone spokesperson was quoted in PerthNow as saying the company "extremely sorry for the inconvenience" would be contacting those affected to offer compensation.
However, by the 17th of December, Vodafone customer ire and complaints across Australia had reached a point where Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) publicly said that it would be looking into the issue.
Then on the 20th of December, Vodafone's Hutchinson network for 3 Mobile subscribers in New South Wales experienced problems, which the company officially denied at first, The Australianreported. However, the newspaper asked why then there was a recorded message on the 3 Mobile support line saying that Vodafone network engineers were trying to fix those very network problems? Talk about shooting yourself in the foot.
Mr. Nigel Dews, CEO of Vodafone Australia, then offered up an apology in a blog post to Vodafone customers on the 21st of December, saying that "it’s clear we could have done a better job at keeping you across what’s been happening" and tacitly admitting that the network problems said to be fixed were indeed not fixed after all.
On the 28th of December, The Australian reported that the law firm Piper Alderman was "registering potential clients" for a class action lawsuit against Vodafone for "calls dropping out, reception issues, poor data performance."
The Australian story said that CEO Dews apologized once more, again blamed the on-going problems on the two software issues mentioned above, along with teething problems experienced over the year with Vodafone's network upgrades. CEO Dews said it would offer compensation to those customers whose problems could not be resolved satisfactorily.
Now today, there is a new story in the Sydney Morning-Herald that reports that 9000 Vodafone customers had expressed interest in the lawsuit already. The article also said that Vodafone announced yesterday - to try to quell customer anger - that it had created "a number of taskforce teams ... to continue to resolve the current network issues."
Vodafone also said that:
"While signs are encouraging, there are some customers who may not be experiencing these benefits as yet, and we will continue our program of work to ensure that customers see improvements over time."
The company also said it appreciated its customers' "patience" in the matter, but neglected to spell out how long "over time" above meant.
Vodafone better hope that its customers do have an abundance of patience. At least 9,000 - and probably lots more - have lost theirs.
Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.