Event News

FutureNet World, London, April 2024 – Review

Contributed by the Appledore Research Group team, including Patrick Kelly, Founder and Principal Analyst (pictured).

FutureNet World London reaffirmed its status as the leading industry forum dedicated to progressive ideas in networks and automation, attracting 650 in-person delegates from around the world, and an impressive lineup of on-topic operator speakers. And it was standing room only in breakout sessions.

The strong commercial support for this event is a testament to its quality and increasing relevance: Ciena Blue Planet chose FutureNet as the backdrop to the launch of their new cloud native platform.

The Challenge of Change

Winston Churchill once said, “To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.” Yet, the telecom industry appears sluggish in adopting change, largely due to its risk-averse nature. Change often brings disruption, something that hyperscalers manage effectively. It’s uncertain whether the telecom industry will adopt the hyperscalers’ ‘fail fast’ philosophy. Struggling to monetize 5G, the industry is now exploring the next $100 billion market opportunity. Focused on the potential of edge computing, and the future of 6G, telecom insiders are shifting their priorities to these new frontiers.

Network automation has been explored in various contexts, including orchestration, intelligent assurance, AI operations, closed-loop systems, intent-based networking, and cloud-native architectures. To fulfil this potential, telecom practitioners must adjust their mindset and bridge the gap across the Network Automation Strategy (NAS) chasm.

AI & Automation

The show’s focus was on AI and Network Automation, the two key pillars for the future telco. However, there remained a lot of debate on where and how to apply these technical innovations. People and organizational structures were seen as representing fundamental barriers to leveraging AI and automation. To overcome these challenges cloudification was seen as the foundational enabler to provide the agility necessary to implement effective AI and Network Automation.

The massive attention given to GenAI is currently overshadowing other forms of AI that CSPs are already adopting. Some CSPs recognize this by continuing to invest in AI/ML mainly for assurance. Most telcos at the show were unclear on how to monetize GenAI, with the current focus areas of GenAI being about replacing human interactions.

On automation, use cases are still confined within the boundaries of fulfilment and assurance functions. This factor limits their effectiveness and ultimately hinders the progress toward autonomous networks. The level of autonomy described by many participants seemed to be stuck at Level 2, on average.

Cloud-Native

Cloud-native technologies are gaining traction in the telecommunications industry, despite the sector being slower to adopt them compared to others. However, many telcos still grapple with understanding the full potential of cloud-native solutions, and the transition to cloud-native networks is often perceived as a complex undertaking. Several speakers emphasized fundamental shifts in thinking were necessary for successful adoption.

Data Challenges

Data is still a problem for many operators, with clean, reliable data key to successful use of AI. Many participants noted the need for better data governance, clear data ownership, and unified data models. The effective use of real-time data for correlation is still hard in the absence of a standard network data model. To overcome this many participants emphasized the need for collaborative effort in this area.

New Business Models

Telecom recognizes the need for new business models and new revenue streams but many at the show noted that the path to get there is unclear. Openness and ecosystems are seen as fundamental to business evolution. At the same time, the industry is still seen as “rigid” and slow to move in that direction. Many highlighted the problem of “not-invented-here” in telcos and the essential need to create and nourish strong partnerships to adopt new technologies and behaviours.

Monetization

“Don’t think about 6G until you have monetized 5G”

The industry is coming out of the investment stage in both 5G and in fibre deployment. It is moving into the monetization stage. However, telcos are finding themselves in a world that has evolved, necessitating new business models and revenue streams to remain relevant and expand beyond the increasingly commoditized “connectivity” offerings. Unfortunately, the traditional tools and processes employed by many telcos are no longer considered adequate for this new era, requiring a significant shift in their approach in order to stay competitive.

The C-Word

Successful transformations require fundamental shifts in organizational culture and mindsets. Many speakers, such as Verizon’s Adam Koeppe, highlighted the need to break down silos between operational and buildout teams to foster the culture of openness that is essential to increase market potential.

Organizations should be encouraged to redefine their goals, focusing on end-to-end openness and overcoming the inherent resistance to change. Obtaining buy-in for major transformations, such as sustainability initiatives, requires a significant evolution in organizational culture, as the business side must be willing to accept the associated risks.

The transition from a traditional vertical integration model to a horizontal, cloud-native approach represents a major cultural shift that organizations must navigate carefully.

Sustainability

Reducing energy consumption was established as a focus area for improving sustainability with it being clear that telcos find it surprisingly difficult to simply turn equipment off. As Neal Geary, director of technical strategy and architecture for Virgin Media/02 noted, wireless connections present the highest demand with 20 times more energy than the equivalent fixed mobile workload.

Sustainability is now seen as a business decision rather than a moral decision. Rather than sustainability being relegated broadly to a discussion of corporate social responsibility (CSR), telco leaders such as Catherine Bohill (director of ESG development and impact for Telefonica) stressed that investors and customers are the driving forces pushing telcos to prioritize sustainability.

Telco to Techco

“Telco needs to put its money where its mouth is.”

The central need to change telco culture and operational behaviour was discussed in many of the panels, and on the show floor too. Speakers noted that telco senior levels both want to move from “telco to techco” but are also risk averse. With innovation perceived as a risk, the reality is limited change. As one speaker noted, “Telco needs to put its money where its mouth is.”

A refreshing level of self-reflection

Futurenet World continues to grow, with this year over 700 registered delegates. It fills an important niche among the major telecommunications trade shows, with a more open agenda that stimulates debate and vision-building. The event series continues with events in Dubai and Singapore later this year. Appledore fully expects that Giles and the team can similarly develop effective forums in these regions.

Appledore commends Giles Cummings and the FutureNetWorld team, and acknowledges the support of host operators BT, Telefonica and Vodafone, and sponsors, led by Ciena Blue Planet, Amdocs, Infovista.

This article is an extract from a longer debrief from the show, available from Appledore.