Jose Manuel Azorin-Albiñana
26 February 2008
Vodafone Group PLC is the world's leading mobile telecommunications company, with
a significant presence in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia Pacific and the United
States. The vision of the company is to be the worldwide leader in mobile
communication enriching the lives of our clients, helping individuals, businesses and
communities to be better communicated in the mobile world.
It is the view of Vodafone, as expressed in its website, that access to mobile
communications can bring a wide range of social and economic benefits and that the
two key elements to the company’s strategy are:
• Bridging the digital divide by improving access for disadvantaged groups,
particularly in emerging markets.
• Reducing preventable exclusion through accessible features and services for
disabled and elderly people, and other customers who find it difficult to use
It is in the second of these two points that Vodafone marks its direction in terms of the
assistive technology market.
The view of Vodafone is that the new ITCs are key elements to improve the inclusion of
certain population groups such as those who suffer some sort of limitation or disability,
as well as older people and the chronically ill. From Vodafone’s standpoint, one of the
fundamental roles that companies from the ITC sector should carry out is the creation
of products that permit and facilitate the accessibility of these user groups.
Vodafone Spain is the centre of reference in the entire Vodafone Corporation on the
subject of social products which are targeted to these groups of users.
The company is interested in encouraging the production and distribution of mobile
units that amplify computer screens for people with low-vision, translators of sound to
text for the deaf population or speaking applications for the blind. These projects form
part of the Vodafone’s global project, “Vodafone Accessible” which also includes the
initiative for e-inclusion to take best advantage of information technologies to promote
economic activity and employment.
As a means to determine the size of the population currently excluded from using
mobile phones, Vodafone conducted scientific studies to determine just how many
people fall into this category. The estimate is that 9% of the European population is
currently excluded from using a mobile phone. Via this same investigative study, it was
also determined that current technology could meet the needs of 96% of the
population if a more inclusive design was employed. The remaining 4% is estimated to
need highly specialised devices in order to use communication services.
With this as background, Vodafone has made it its goal to reduce this level of exclusion
by one-third by the year 2010. The company estimates that commercial success can
result from such a goal, so much so that this goal has now been incorporated into the
company’s principal strategy for the future.
Vodafone has also created a Social Investment Fund with the compromise to dedicate
more than 7 million€ to ensure the development of products that have an elevated
social value and which also contribute a reasonable commercial profit.
To best attend to the needs of currently excluded end-users, Vodafone employs two
approaches. The first of these is the promotion of specialised products, for example,
Mobile Accessibility2, Mobile Speak, Mobile Magnifier and the Speaking Phone for the
low vision and blind communities. The idea is that these types of specifically-developed
products are products that truly attend to the real needs of the disabled or otherwise
excluded consumer. Vodafone has learned through its experience with these types of
products as well as with these end-users that what the majority of these currently
“excluded” users want is to not be treated in a different manner, but rather that their
needs be included in a company’s standard product offering. Such an approach
would not only reduce any possible stigma related to specialised products, but also
supposes that the price for such a unit would be more reasonable because the unit
would form part of a company’s standard product series, and not something unique
and thereby more costly to develop, manufacture and commercialise.
In addition to Vodafone’s specialised products, the company works with a philosophy
of mainstreaming, or as Vodafone calls it, “inclusive design” which means to
incorporate functions that make standard products more accessible and easier to use,
including for those who up to now have been excluded from using them. One of
Vodafone’s best known products to result from this design concept is the Vodafone
Simply. The product was quite a success, not just with formerly excluded users, but also
with traditional users who were looking for something easier to use (bigger buttons,
bigger screen, etc.). After the success of this product, Vodafone pledged to
incorporate the concept of inclusive design in the majority of the company’s products.
The central issue with this type of mainstreaming is how to converge the needs of
special collectives (such as the blind) with needs that other groups of users might have.
A perfect example for this is voice to text software which was originally thought up as a
solution for blind people to be able to send text messages, but which also has a
potential market for all those people who would like to send text messages while driving
safely. By creating these types of solutions, the potential market size is large enough to
generate serious interest on the part of companies to develop and promote solutions
which result in all types of users – from those with special accessibility needs to those
users without a formal type of disability – being better served.
Looking ahead, it’s likely that Vodafone will more strongly promote the use of inclusive
design than the creation of specialised products. The reasons for this are twofold: on
the one hand feedback from the marketplace indicates that disabled users want to
use devices that are as normal as possible, and on the other, specialised products tend
to be more complicated to commercialise.
In terms of how Vodafone detects the needs of users (disabled and not disabled) that
should be included in its products, the company uses focus groups with end-users. And
for the specific needs of the disabled, Vodafone also employs feedback from
associations which are dedicated to working with the disabled population. These
specialised associations also assist Vodafone in its decisions as to how best market
product for the disabled community. The difficulty with such an approach is that by the
time these associations are consulted, with the exception of a very serious problem, it is
too late for modifications in the product to be made.
Although the applications are global throughout Vodafone, the specific distribution of
these products depends on the operator in each country. The company believes that
this decentralised system allows those closest to the local market to best identify what
products, pricing and service plans (for example, offers for free text messaging) are
most suitable given the competitive structure of the market and Vodafone’s relative
The geographic regions which are most active in terms of accessibility are Europe, the
USA and Canada. Developing market economies generally have other immediate
priorities and the issue of accessibility is for the moment, secondary.
In general, the distribution of Vodafone’s social products is quite complex. The
company uses two channels to distribute their accessibility products: Vodafone physical
stores as well as the company’s online store. These channels are used because
according to Vodafone, they are where Vodafone has the greatest degree of control.
That said, it was specifically commented that the physical stores have not been very
successful in selling these types of units. One of the foremost reasons for this is that the
staff is often very young and is not at all specialised enough to be able to convincingly
sell these types of products. An example of this was the mobile phone Vodafone 710
which has a magnetic loop for hearing aid users. The difficulty with the selling staff
being so young is that they don’t even know what a hearing aid is, let alone how to
effectively market a device that supports one.
Another difficulty that Vodafone has had came in its attempt to work more closely with
dispensers of hearing instruments to better identify end-user needs. The key problem
was that the dispenser community did not regard Vodafone as a legitimate or value
added partner in their business. They see Vodafone as a telecommunications operator
and not a supplier of solutions for their end-users.
An additional challenge in the area of distribution is overcoming the lack of familiarity
that many end-user populations, especially older people, may have with technology.
Vodafone’s solution to this has been massive educational and training campaigns.
Because of the barriers that many people may have towards these new technologies,
Vodafone has had to essentially design a new commercialisation process which has
imbedded in it a strong portion of education on the product and its functionality.
Issue of Standardisation
Vodafone supports the creation of accessibility certification as well as the use of
standards as important aids to realising the goal of accessibility for everyone. The
company has a clear orientation to work in a continuous manner to stay at the
forefront of developments and advances produced in the coming years.
That said, Vodafone also admits to the issue of technological standardisation being
both a problem and an opportunity. On the one hand, it can be a problem, especially
if it is a competitor who develops the technology. The difficulty lies in it not being
beneficial to Vodafone to pay royalties to a competitor for a technology that he
developed, thereby giving him (the competitor), more resources to be even more
competitive. A specific example of this dilemma was with the Bluetooth technology
developed by Ericsson.
The opportunity comes about from the technology being quite successful and well-
accepted by the marketplace. If the technology is incorporated, it’s more likely that
the units sold by Vodafone will meet with greater commercial success. So in the end, it
is Vodafone who must decide (ostensibly through a cost/benefit analysis) if the benefits
from technology developed by a competitor warrant it being incorporated into a
These issues are all the more complex because increasingly, the lines are not always
clearly drawn between who is a competitor and who is a collaborator. On some
projects, or in some parts of the company, the other firm may be a research partner,
whereas in another area, the same firm is a fierce competitor.
In the end, Vodafone feels that if the technology is good, it ends up getting
incorporated into products. The Bluetooth technology is one example, and Nokia and
its Symbian operating system is another.
As for examples of countries where strandardisation efforts have been effective, Mr.
Azorin-Albiñana specifically cited Canada and its recent accessibility law as one
example of a strict norm that establishes clear requirements as to the minimum that a
unit must have if it is to comply with accessibility and universal design legislation.
As mentioned earlier with regard to product development, Vodafone maintains an
active relationship with various associations. One example of this is Vodafone’s
collaboration with The Spanish Confederation of Families of Deaf People (FIAPAS) to
promote the use of magnetic loops for hearing aid users.
In general, the experience of Vodafone with events dedicated to the accessibility issue
has not been overwhelmingly positive. The view is that these types of events tend to be
quite closed in that the same people participate and see each other at each event.
Also, since the issue of accessibility in ICTs is just beginning to take root in Spain, the issue
of useful events remains one very much under development.
In Spain, the most interesting events in Vodafone’s view for accessibility issues are:
° AVANTE, 1st event for Personal Autonomy and Quality of Life (to be celebrated 5-7
° TIFLOINNOVA organised by the R&D centre of the ONCE (Spanish Organisation for
Blind Persons) for assistive technology for blind and visually impaired people