Vodacom expects drone deliveries to launch in SA by at least 2025, if not sooner, according to Nyimpini Mabunda, Vodacom chief officer for the consumer business unit, who says "technology wise we are ready".
He was speaking at a press event to unveil the telco's new brand positioning strategy, including focusing more on the telco as a digital business. The strategy is part of parent company Vodafone's global rebrand announced yesterday, which includes a new tagline and logo. Mabunda says it "reflects a fundamental shift in the way Vodacom does and will do business".
"We will aggressively focus on innovation in the digital space to improve our products and services."
Part of this is enabling innovative technologies like drones, which could make it possible to deliver medicines and important supplies to rural areas in SA.
"It also depends a lot on regulation. One of the debates around drones, for now, is regulation and safety concerns. So I think it's in the regulator's hands by and large. We have had trials in an enclosed environment where it is allowed and some markets are already going ahead with deliveries."
The idea is not that far-fetched, with companies like UPS already testing home delivery by drone in the US. Robotics company Zipline International last year started using unmanned aerial vehicles to deliver medication and blood supplies to remote clinics in Rwanda.
Next January, Zipline is set to launch the world's largest drone delivery network in Tanzania, with plans to make 2 000 deliveries a day to more than 1 000 health facilities across the country, including blood, vaccines, malaria and HIV drugs.
Drone deliveries are predicted to become common in the future.
The telco's focus on innovation and future technologies plays into its 2020 vision strategy, which Mabunda says comes down to what kind of company Vodacom would like to be going forward.
"Our aspiration is to be a leading digital company. We see ourselves beyond telecommunications. We see ourselves beyond just connecting people for communication; we see ourselves connecting anything and everything.
"That is a significant change for us. It opens up a whole new world and opportunities in terms of new business streams, a way of working, partnerships and changing the way we approach everything," he says.
Mabunda says a big focus is using big data and the Internet of things (IOT) to better connect and service customers.
"We are already doing quite a lot of IOT, but we started with enterprise. So we are working with various municipalities, for example, on smart metering projects.
"We are working with the Department of Health on areas like the replenishing of stock for hospitals using our IOT system. We are working with some of the financial services companies in terms of payments and ordering systems.
"In the consumer space we have also announced the global launch of consumer IOT through Vodafone and of course this work lends itself to a bigger focus on different business units. So you can expect that we will be diversifying our business as a result of this."
We will aggressively focus on innovation in the digital space to improve our products and services.
He says Vodacom needs to look for new revenue streams and digital opportunities, accelerate them and invest in innovations.
"The position challenges us to be innovative, to be future-proof and to add value. You cannot say the future is exciting if you don't come up with innovative products and services.
"IOT all over the world requires first and foremost connectivity. There is going to be a huge amount of devices that need to be connected and able to talk to each other. It's a huge business opportunity for telecoms around the world because we already provide connectivity."
Vodacom last month announced it had connected more than three million ‘things' in SA and averages 55 000 new IOT connections per month.
IOT connections have seen a major uptick recently. Vodacom said it took eight years to get to two million connections but only one year to add the next one million.
Vodacom believes IOT is a huge business opportunity for telecoms operators.
Mabunda says one of the operator's publicly stated "big bets" is big data and it is investing a lot of money in that space, along with machine learning.
"It's very important for a business like ours to do so to remain relevant. Artificial intelligence is also quite critical. If you take an area like our call centres, for instance, we are a business with 39 million customers, and a lot of time is taken by customers trying to identify themselves when they call us. We need predictive analytics to know why they are calling us, and be able to solve their problems before they even call.
We need to be able to know our customers through voice recognition, for instance, and anticipate why you are calling the moment we pick up your voice; look back on the other times you have called us to know the pattern of what you are calling about; and be able to route you automatically to the agent who will best serve you. And all of that requires machine learning."
He says driverless car technology is also a key area of interest for the telco.
"If you look at the areas where we have already invested, it goes without saying that driverless vehicles are a big opportunity for us and we are collaborating with developers on a global scale for those opportunities.
"Because a driverless car cannot work without the right network, it's not for the car manufacturers to create the network, they have to work with us to do that," he concludes.