Accelerating the journey to zero touch: a game-changer for telecoms
Automation has become a critical enabler for telecom companies to address their cost and service demands. Yet deploying automation at pace can be difficult in complex network domains. Now there are new opportunities for the sector to work together to innovate and mature its use of automation to meet the challenges of 5G and beyond.
The revolution that’s underway for telecom companies is well known. Network Function Virtualization and cloudification are putting an end to dedicated network appliances. The arrival of 5G is happening alongside the expansion of the Internet of Things. Edge computing is starting to redefine the way networks will operate. And telecom markets are shifting and merging, with new challengers in the form of hyperscalers and telecom leaders like AT&T now selling cloud and cybersecurity services.
More and more with less
Such disruption creates more pressure than ever on operators to do more with less. By more, I mean customer demand for more speed, more value, more data, more services – together with the urgent need for operators to invest in their next-generation networks. By less I mean the pressure on operators’ resources and the bottom line. And companies need to reduce time to market – especially for 5G. This means operators must increase the speed of testing and validation by five times at least, compared to 3G/4G, to handle all the new services, functions or devices.
It’s more than humans can handle, so it’s no wonder that automation is seen as essential – especially the combination of robotic process automation (RPA) with AI and analytics, sometimes called intelligent automation.
On the customer-facing side of the business, intelligent chatbots can deal with customer requests and servicing needs. On the network operations side, key business processes such as fault/performance management and service quality management can be automated, enabling operators to dramatically increase speed and efficiency. Zero-touch, closed-loop automation is now possible by orchestrating different virtualized or cloudified network architectures. Examples range from anomaly detection to root-cause analysis, and from AI-based recommendations to the effective execution of necessary corrections in the network.
Automation challenges for telecom operators
Yet it’s fair to say there have been some struggles for telecoms to advance zero-touch automation at the necessary scale and pace. A combination of challenges has limited automation opportunities for telecoms operators and for device vendors and other technology/services partners.
First, it can take a long time – up to three or even five years – to fully automate a complex network domain or vendor-specific architecture that involves multiple technologies and tooling. This is especially true for large operators that need to unify their business support systems (BSS) and operations support systems (OSS) activities across multiple sub companies.
Systems and data are often siloed within specific BSS or OSS domains, which constrains intelligent automation. What’s more, training the AI algorithms/data models to be accurate and relevant can be time-consuming, and it relies on very high volumes of training data that can be difficult for individual operators to source.
A new vision for zero touch
Instead of discrete intelligent automation RPA solutions, a more coordinated vision for zero touch would be the creation of a telecom industry platform to orchestrate end-to-end data-driven automation. This could be available across the whole telecom ecosystem, from operators, to device vendors, to technology companies and other partners.
End-to-end automation with zero-touch service operations will be the mantra for any organization to succeed
With DevOps practices to accelerate the delivery of automation solutions, these solutions could be orchestrated and cost-optimized via one single virtualized platform. Mature assets and accelerators such as trained AI models, ready for use, could be shared between companies to accelerate the zero-touch journey by two, three or even five times. For instance, AI-powered products are already automating testing and service assurance. These would enable more predictive, proactive and pre-emptive OSS activities such as equipment failure prediction, quality of service/experience degradation anticipation, and field-force management planning.
New collaborations and monetization
There are exciting opportunities for new collaborations between partners and between different telecom providers for mutual benefit. For instance: to accelerate the new-device, new-service or new-function general availability process, telco operators would be able to propose their testing assets such as testing strategy or scenario to manufacturers. And they could monetize them via the platform for instant use by device vendors ahead of launch. The same could happen with sharing outage scenarios for stress testing.
End-to-end automation with zero-touch service operations will be the mantra for any organization to succeed. What’s crucial is to start thinking more holistically about the opportunities and challenges of automation across the telecom sector.
There is exciting potential for collaboration and creativity to accelerate the journey to zero touch, create the truly self-optimizing networks of tomorrow — and be the game changer.
My team is designing an initial AI-powered ecosystem platform to help the telecom industry seize the opportunities and eliminate the challenges. It integrates managed services and a trusted data environment to secure services in accordance with the GAIA-X initiative (more on GAIA-X) and the Trusted Digital Exchange that’s built with GAIA-X.
The industry is uniquely well-placed and ready to launch such digital platforms that bring value to the market; creating new roles, new changes in the game and new service ecosystems.