The future's bright, the future's the mobile internet

Orange's top man in the UK talks to Mark Leftly
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The Independent Online

The tall, lean Dutchman sits cross-legged, fidgeting. Olaf Swantee is clearly not comfortable with the press but the 42-year-old will have to get used to the attention. His wordy job title – executive senior vice-president, personal communication services, UK and Europe/ Middle East – disguises his true importance to Orange, the French-owned telecoms group.

Swantee is in charge of Orange's mobile-phone business, which has 116 million customers and accounts for over half the group's €53bn (£48bn) revenue, and he heads all operations in the UK. He joined Orange from IT giant Hewlett-Packard in 2007.

At the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, he will be pushing what he sees as his big driver over the next few years. "Even in the economic crisis, we see tremendous growth in non-voice mobile use – that is, the internet, Facebook, mobile banking," he says, the techie in him warring with the need to talk in layman's terms.

Orange estimates that only about 18 per cent of its €29bn mobile revenue comes from non-voice use. Excluding text messages, just 6 per cent of time on the mobile is spent not having a chat with friends, family, work or the staff at the local takeaway.

"We believe we can really drive mobile internet use up, maybe to 110 million people – particularly in 2009-10," he says, explaining that developing technology is making such use more affordable, allowing Orange to "democratise, bring it to the masses".

Swantee says Orange boffins in California have developed a service that allows, for example, someone to transfer a map from the Yahoo! search engine on a desktop computer to a mobile with a click of a button. "There are applications that can carry one to the other quickly," he says. "Your cellphone is a very personal device. We can make that experience much more personal."

He sits in Orange's Paddington Basin offices in London with an A4 notebook filled with bullet points. He has tried to impress this organised attitude on his company. When he joined, 40 per cent of British Orange customers were not answered within 20 seconds when they rang the call centres. Now, more than 90 per cent can expect a quick answer. Last November, Orange's UK chief executive, Tom Alexander, who reports to Swantee, echoed his boss by stating that Orange would scale back its fixed broadband service in favour of improving relations wirh subscribers.

Swantee is pleased with the results: "Over the past four or five months our customer service is good. A year and a half back, I was getting 100 emails a week from customers [complaining]."

Although he looks uncomfortable during the interview, he has been pleasant throughout. He speaks in fluent, composed English – a result of his Oxford education and living in London three days a week. Finally, he is at ease as he discusses how he keeps trim: a half-hour morning run around Hyde Park. "You know, I see the same guy in a red cap swimming there every day, even in winter," he says.

It is the first time in 40 minutes that this serious, organised Dutchman has broken into a hearty laugh.