Press Release | 21 Jul 2021

Rugby fans have their Lions jerseys autographed live from 8,000 miles away in world first 5G signing

In a world first, a 5G-powered robot allowed British & Irish Lions players to surprise UK-based fans with live shirt signings over the Vodafone 5G network - all the way from South Africa.

  • With supporters unable to travel to South Africa, Vodafone uses its 5G technology to host a traditional jersey signing from 8,000 miles away.
  • Using Vodafone’s low latency 5G network and motion control technology, Lions players Maro Itoje, Chris Harris and Ken Owens sign fans’ jerseys in real-time.
  • A shirt in London is signed by a giant robot arm, controlled by the players in South Africa.
  • Vodafone’s 5G network allows the players to connect with fans back home days ahead of their first Test match against the Springboks.

21 July 2021, London: Vodafone has conducted the world’s first 5G shirt signing. Rugby fans in the UK were connected with Lions players 8,000 miles away in South Africa for a live autograph signing – made possible by the power of 5G.

With supporters unable to travel, Vodafone – Lead Partner for the British & Irish Lions – found an innovative way to connect fans to the players competing overseas and give back a missed moment of much-needed connection for both.

Designed to bring fans closer to the tour, the ‘8,000 Mile Auto5Graph’ is a unique fan experience. It was developed by Vodafone as part of their partnership with the British & Irish Lions to treat super fans unable to fly out and support the team in South Africa.

illustrative image of Lions Vodafone 5G Autograph
Graham Bartlett watches as his Lions jersey is autographed over 5G.

Rugby super fans Rocco Lock, Mark Probert, Mel Dee and Graham Bartlett all met their Lions heroes and shared words of encouragement, before the 5G-powered robot, controlled by the Lions players in South Africa, wrote a personal message and signature directly onto their jersey, live in front of their eyes.

How the ‘8,000 Mile Auto5Graph’ Works

Using a precision robot, motion control technology and Vodafone’s low latency 5G network, the Lions players signed jerseys live for fans in the UK, from over 8,000 miles away. As the player made contact on a tablet with a stylus in South Africa, a robot arm stationed in London mirrored the player’s hand movements, allowing them to write directly onto the fan’s jersey in real-time, while chatting on a video call.

Max Taylor, Consumer Director at Vodafone, said:

“For the fans that would have gone on this Lions tour to South Africa, getting a signed shirt would be one of the highlights of the trip. The pandemic risked stopping that from happening – but we’ve used 5G to find a way to make it a reality. Throughout this tour, we’ve used technology and innovation to overcome barriers, and I’m delighted that we’ve given these fans a unique experience and something that they can treasure forever. A 5G-signed shirt is going to be a priceless souvenir from what is already proving to be a memorable tour.”

Meet the ‘Super Fans’

Rocco Jax Lock – an early adopter of the egg-shaped ball, five-year-old Rocco is famed within his community (and on YouTube!) for mimicking famous Welsh rugby players and showing off his impressions to his friends and family. He lives with his Mum and Dad in Mountain Ash, South Wales, and is regularly spotted supporting his dad at the local rugby club, eagerly awaiting his 6th birthday when he can get onto the pitch and follow in his Lions heroes’ footsteps. Watch Rocco’s story here.

Jonny Lock, Rocco’s father, who was with him for the live signing with Ken Owens, was amazed: “Rocco couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw the robot moving in front of him, and the signature appearing on the shirt – we were all taken aback! He’s loved rugby ever since he could walk, so having this experience with one of his Welsh heroes is more than he could ever have dreamed of.”

Mark Probert and Mel Dee – both rugby fanatics, the pair were due to marry last year and attend the 2021 Tour as part of their honeymoon. Due to the pandemic, this dream had to be put on hold, but their passion for the game and this series squad has not been broken. Although huge Gloucester Rugby fans, Mark and Mel relocated to Northamptonshire where Mel regularly practises tag rugby at her local club and never misses a men’s or women’s game.

The couple, who are now due to marry this summer, were grateful to still be able to make such a special 2021 Lions Tour memory with Lions debutant, Chris Harris. Mel Dee said: “It was surreal – who would have thought we could still connect with the players at such a personal level in the midst of the Tour, from 8,000 miles away – and one of our favourite Gloucester boys at that! It was incredible. The autograph came out as if we were right there with them in South Africa.”

Graham Bartlett – Graham waited his whole life to attend a Lions Tour and on the day of his retirement, booked his first series Tour, following the Lions around Australia back in 2013 and then again in New Zealand during 2017. A pillar of the community, Graham previously supported his son’s school rugby team and went onto coach several youth teams due to his belief in the positive power rugby can have on a community. Graham would have attended his third consecutive Tour this year in South Africa, before COVID struck.

The seasoned Tourer was surprised by Maro Itoje and watched on as he wrote him a personal message directly onto his shirt: “Given we weren’t able to fly out to South Africa this summer; this experience is about as good as it gets. To be able to share words of encouragement with one of our nation’s greatest players and have that moment of connection during the 5G signing is such a privilege and a memory that I’ll cherish for years to come.”

Vodafone is the Lead Partner of the British & Irish Lions. The ‘8,000 Mile Auto5Graph’ is a 5G-based activation developed to connect fans to the Tour like never before. To hear more about each ‘super fan’ and watch their ‘8,000 Mile Auto5Graph’ experience, head to the Vodafone YouTube channel.

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About Vodafone & Rugby

In July 2020 Vodafone announced its role as Lead Partner of the British & Irish Lions for the 2021 Tour of South Africa. The two brands are united by a shared passion and commitment to connect people to each other and the things they love – the highly anticipated Lions Tour against the World Champions.

The partnership builds on Vodafone’s heritage of bringing technological advances to the rugby fan experience. In May 2019, Vodafone UK announced a two-year partnership with Wasps rugby and Wasps Netball to bring to life the benefits of 5G technology. Two months later, Vodafone worked with Wasps to create the world’s first 5G haptic rugby tackle. Using a haptic Teslasuit and the Vodafone 5G network, Wasps Rugby player Juan de Jongh was able to feel the impact of a tackle made 100 miles away by team mate Will Rowlands.

In October 2019, Vodafone trialled tech during the Wasps vs London Irish match which provided new camera angles and close-ups to get fans involved with the on-pitch play and give them “5Gamechanger seats” – the best seats in the house. Video from 360° cameras placed around the pitch – including in the players’ tunnel, dug-out and south stand – was streamed over 5G to give fans a real-time perspective on the game, getting them closer to the action than ever before.

In September 2019, Vodafone Ireland signed an extension agreement to be principal sponsor of the Irish Rugby team and communications partner to the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) until 2024. The agreement also saw Vodafone become official sponsor of the IRFU Women’s Interprovincial Championship. The multi-year deal will see Vodafone and the IRFU work together to use both new and existing technology to create events, activations and content that will benefit all rugby fans and Vodafone customers in Ireland.

British & Irish Lions

The British & Irish Lions are one of the most famous teams in the world of rugby. Every four years, the Lions – selected from the national sides of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland – head to the southern hemisphere to do battle with rugby heavyweights New Zealand, Australia or South Africa.

About Vodafone UK

Vodafone UK is a technology communications company that connects people, businesses and devices to help our customers benefit from digital innovation. Our services span mobile, fixed-line connections, home and office broadband, and the Internet of Things (IoT).

We have a strong track record as a tech pioneer, making the UK’s first mobile phone call, sending the first text message, and making the UK’s first live holographic call using 5G in 2018. We were the first to start carrying live 5G traffic from a site in Salford, Greater Manchester and now have 5G in locations across Germany, Ireland, Italy, Spain as well as the UK. Meanwhile, our 4G network coverage currently reaches over 99% of the UK population.

Today, Vodafone serves more than 18 million mobile and fixed-line customers in the UK. Vodafone is the largest provider of full fibre in the UK – our superfast broadband services are now available to nearly 12 million homes across the UK.

Sustainability is also at the heart of what we do: as of 1 July 2021, 100% of the grid electricity we use in the UK is certified to be from renewable sources.

For more information about Vodafone UK, please visit:

Vodafone UK Media Relations

Telephone: +44 (0) 1635 693 693


Twitter: @VodafoneUKNews


Vodafone Limited

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