CTO Jeanie York talks to Annie Turner about her vision as the UK operator strives to become the alternative network provider.
Jeanie York became CTO at Virgin Media O2 in June 2021 when Virgin Media, owned by Liberty Global, merged with Telefonica’s O2 in June 2021. Previously she was CTIO at Virgin Media in the UK, based in London. Before that, York was Managing Director of Core Network Planning, Engineering and Operations across 10 European countries at Liberty Global, based in Amsterdam.
What new responsibilities have you faced since your role began as CTO of Virgin Media O2?
It’s wide-ranging. We are converging fixed and mobile services which naturally brings complexity at a technical product consolidation level across our network platforms and services, but fundamentally it’s about making sure that the network is performing to its best level, providing a consistent and reliable customer experience.
On a day-to-day basis, I manage a huge team of talented engineers, operators, technicians, project managers and many more specialists. We set the technical strategy for fixed-mobile convergence and build and run a set of fixed and mobile services. We are rolling out new technologies across fixed and mobile across the UK, laying fibre while expanding and upgrading our mobile network and deploying spectrum bands to serve customers.
Telecoms has a massive responsibility to deliver the services required by and expected from consumers, businesses and the Government as it drives its digital infrastructure agenda. It’s a huge but incredibly rewarding undertaking.
Is the role of CTO shifting and how will it evolve?
It’s critical to move forward and evolve in such a role. The technology and telecoms evolutionary cycle used to be every five or so years; now it’s two to three years and innovation is accelerating, exacerbated by the pandemic and people working remotely.
We are striving to build, expand and maintain a reliable service for millions of customers who rely on us every day…Whether that’s 5G services or a specific product for business, it can’t just be tech for tech’s sake. There must be tangible benefits for customers and commercial gains for the operator.
Customers are demanding a different level of experience from us. How they use our services has changed, with far fewer phone calls and SMS, but much greater levels of data. It’s essential to support this: we’re a vital utility in homes across the UK.
Finally, it’s imperative that any CTO leadership team sends the right messages top-down, but it has never been more crucial than when bringing together two large technology companies. In my role I work closely with our Director of Network Expansion, Chief Information Officer and our Chief Digital Officer. Having this group on the most senior team in our business gives us the expertise, speed and agility we need to drive digital transformation, which determines where we sink or swim.
What were your career highlights before your current role?
In the 24-plus years I’ve been in telecoms, the breath-taking pace of our industry has provided me with lots of highlights. When I first joined Quest, which was acquired by CenturyLink, broadband roll-out was just beginning. Most people couldn’t take a phone call and use the internet at the same time. Imagine.
I like to think that in my time at CenturyLink, Liberty Global and Virgin Media (pre-merger) I’ve played a role in our collective progress. As the Vice President of Network Operations and then as a Managing Director at Liberty Global I was responsible for the core network planning, engineering and operations across 10 European countries. I got to see first-hand the difference that connectivity makes to people’s day-to-day lives. This remains one of my favourite and most satisfying parts of the job.
What are your priorities for the fixed network in the coming years?
We’ve achieved a lot in a relatively short space of time. In 15 months, we closed the joint venture, secured funding to upgrade our fibre network and expanding that network to new territories, but really we’ve just begun. I’m incredibly proud of our ambitious roll-out; alread, we are the UK’s largest gigabit broadband provider, passing 15.9 million premises with speeds of 1.1Gbps.
We’ve set bold ambitions and targets, not least via two recent announcements: to upgrade our fixed network to full fibre to the premises (FTTP) by 2028; and in July our shareholders, Liberty Global and Telefónica, alongside investment firm InfraVia Capital Partners, announced an investment of about £4.5 billion with the creation of a fibre joint venture. We will pass up to 7 million premises with a new, wholesale fibre network – a significant commitment and a boost to the nation’s digital economy at a crucial time.
This investment will extend our fibre footprint to 80% of the UK, strengthening our position as the biggest challenger in the market. We’ll not only provide our build-out talent and expertise to the new venture, but offer other operators a sizeable, attractive wholesale opportunity too. This will enhance competition and choice like never before.
On the mobile side, we continue to invest to bring crucial connectivity to all parts of the UK. 5G services are available in more than 800 towns and cities, and roll-out is on track for 5G to hit 50% population coverage in 2023. Boosting 4G remains a key focus for investment: 4G capacity was upgraded in 460,000 postcodes in the past 12 months.
We’re looking at how to streamline our networks and make them more operationally efficient, investing in technologies such as AI and automation to minimise disruption for customers and provide faster, more reliable services. This all sits under our wider goal of building a network fit for the future, in response to and with the intention of exceeding customers’ expectations.
How is Virgin Media O2 building a sustainable network and transitioning to 5G Standalone?
Sustainability is at the core of our network. Our network is powered by 100% renewable electricity where we control the bill, and we’ve lowered energy consumption with smart sensors, intuitive software and free air cooling. This means our mobile network is 88% more energy efficient than in 2015.
Technology is at the heart of tackling the climate crisis. We’ve committed to helping our customers avoid producing 20 million tonnes of carbon through our products and services.
We recently updated our ambitious commitments to strive for net-zero carbon across our operations, products and supply chain by the end of 2040, committing to the Science Based Target initiative’s (SBTi) Net-Zero Standard.
Looking specifically at Standalone 5G, it will help us deliver ultra-fast connectivity to consumers and develop advanced enterprise use cases, laying the foundations for techniques like network slicing, ultra-low latency and the ability to handle unprecedented volumes of data. The standalone network will support applications like virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and other immersive experiences, some of which were part of our recent 5G Festival project with the DCMS.
Work is underway with Ericsson to unify our non-standalone 5G and Standalone 5G into an integrated, dual-mode, core network.
How important is the Shared Rural Network and what is Virgin Media O2 currently involvement?
It is integral to what we do: at the time of the merger, we announced our intentions to create a connectivity champion for everyone – and rural areas are a substantial part of that. We’ve rolled out new sites in areas such as Cumbria, South Knapdale, Elvingston, Hamnavoe and the Isle of Harris, providing fast, reliable 4G coverage.
Some challenges cannot be tackled alone, and we continue to collaborate with the wider industry to support consumers and businesses up and down the country. Whether that’s through building the Shared Rural Network, delivering 4G on London Underground, or inviting operators to join our National Databank, we strongly believe that together we can achieve great things.
You’re passionate about cultivating future talent in the industry. How are you addressing this within Virgin Media O2, both personally and companywide?
Encouraging young people into our industry from different backgrounds is a passion of mine. As an industry we must continue to promote STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] careers in schools, colleges and universities, and make it clear this is a career path for absolutely everybody. There’s a huge need for fresh talent but it’s simply not there and we’re reacting too slowly.
We need to collaborate across the telecoms sector and with external partners like the Prince’s Trust, which is amazing at getting young people into work but we need to do more to encourage them into STEM careers. We need to start sooner, empowering boys and girls of all ages to think about STEM subjects from an early school age, and encouraging parents and communities to support them.
When I started my career, as a woman I was often in the minority and it wasn’t easy. I want to ensure that nobody feels has to feel like that. I work closely with universities, implementing apprenticeships and reviewing recruitment processes to achieve a more diverse intake. I coach and mentor women across our business and I am a member at the Aspire to Inspire women’s network across Liberty Global.
In the past two years we’ve created 1,000 apprenticeships across the company, from networking and engineering to customer installation and project management and have 160 volunteer ambassadors promoting STEM careers to young people. The next step is ensuring that every intake reflects the diversity of our wider society, which is a cross-industry challenge.