Telefónica’s network automation: the whole is greater than the sum of the parts
Enrique Blanco talks to Contributing Editor Annie Turner about being close to completing the foundations for NaaS and the massive implications of what it will bring.
As Global CTIO for Telefónica, Enrique Blanco is one of the best known faces in telecommunications. He has had a long, illustrious career so far, and shows no sign of running out of enthusiasm or ambition for his role or the future of the telecoms industry.
We start by referring to a three-year network automation programme focused on legacy operations, which put in place in mid-2020 and described in a FutureNet World interview with Juan Manuel Caro Bernat from early 2021.
So, has the programme gone to plan or gone awry? “Better than even we thought it would,” Blanco says without hesitation. “Now 95% of all tickets are fully automated. It is a very similar [situation] in all big operators – we cannot survive without this kind of automation.”
Only one out of every five of the remainder requires analysis by equipment providers or software experts working under maintenance contracts. The rest are dealt with by staff at level one or two. Blanco explains, “The tools that helped us achieve this almost full automation are built with parts from the OSS and newer tools.”
“Now we are building a new paradigm and a new subset of tools to help us fully automate the software solutions previously done by the traditional monolithic approach,” he continues. “We have moved away from monolithic platforms for functions like PCRF [policy and charging rules function] and billing but the original tools for managing the platforms were not designed to work in a softwarised environment.”
Open RAN is front and central in this evolution. “We are testing up to 20 base stations in Germany but will soon be scaling this up rapidly. The new generation of tools enables the new software layer to break down siloes and generate data lakes to which AI and machine learning are applied to build use cases. “We’re progressing quite well, using CI/CD/CT [ methodologies] and so on,” he says.
Telefónica is taking the same approach to “open” broadband. There are only three big GPON providers in the world and the operator works with two of them, Nokia and Huawei. Blanco explains, “We want to create pure laser capabilities – similar to the radio within Open RAN – so FTTH’s intelligence is provided by the OLT [optical line terminator] and we can manage millions of FTTH customers because the multi-laser capabilities are controlled by a server in central offices.”
Telefónica España manages a very small percentage of its FTTH customers this way, but Blanco explains, “We started with the optics and are progressing very fast with broadband and the OLTs, but just implementing it in Open RAN. Why is Open RAN slower? In FTTH, the equivalent of the antennas is the customer premises equipment which we control. In Open RAN, you must evolve the antennas which is a different beast.”
Failure is not an option
Automation in the access networks must be matched in the backbone: 5G and FTTH are sending traffic to the transport network that is growing at 55% or 60% year on year. “We need a bold answer to how we manage and evolve the backbone”, Blanco says, which is to translate traffic into IP, disaggregate it from the optic infrastructure and add a layer of software-defined networking [SDN] which feeds actionable data into data lakes for analysis the application of AI, from which to build automation use cases.
This is critical: “If I fail in the access [network], it impacts maybe 20, 30 or 50 base stations. If I fail in the backbone, I collapse the network. Failure is not an option. This is why the first software we built was for the backbone. Once we had it, we moved to the server layer I mentioned already, which must be managed and guarantee full automation”.
Network-as-a-Service is the key
These many strands of automation and intelligence in the network will together form the foundations for the most radical change of all – Network-as-a-Service (NaaS). Blanco points out that in a way nothing has changed in planning, provisioning and delivering telecoms networks and services in the 40 years he’s worked in the industry. Networks and services have always been built on the principle of best effort via shared assets, guided by statistics and averages.
“With 5G Standalone and the network structure functionality that we designed eight years ago, we can reserve capabilities in the network to give customers what they ask for – guaranteed quality on demand, whether they’re going from Madrid to Barcelona or through London to Paris,” he says.
For instance, a customer could ask for 30 or 50 Mbps with a latency of 30ms, for the next three or four hours, even if they will be moving from antenna to antenna while travelling on a train. To achieve this, “Means that we need to learn in a different way – we need algorithms to help us define the network… and help us at every moment,” he explains.
“It is a new paradigm that will help us monetise faster and better, offering customers the experience of quality on demand, regardless of the services or devices [because] I can know, exactly, the status of each device. In all this, the privacy of information, of customers’ data is an obsession for us,” according to Blanco. “We manage data about our customers, so it must be under our control. Softwarisation is an extraordinary opportunity to keep it even safer. Centralisation puts it at a single point which is fully protected.”
Blanco believes this “obsession” is foundational to Telefónica’s success, making privacy intrinsic to how every service is built. “This is part of the automation and a significant part of the complexity of what we’re building in the network and IT,” he says. “We are fighting to create a supercomputing network from all the assets – the antennas; the routers at home; the optical capabilities; routers for B2B; and whatever else – and building software over them all that gives the whole those supercomputing capabilities.”
Exposing supercomputer capabilities
The network and IT assets have many cloudified pieces which Telefónica “will offer through a single window that can be embedded in a different service provider, Blanco continues. “This has extraordinary momentum. We have the technology, the optics, the IP, the software and the cloud pieces, so, in short we have everything. I think that in the next three to five years we will be much more closer to what we dreamed of 10 years ago.”
In 2023, Telefónica will implement the 5G Standalone core and be able to offer static slicing based on 5G Standalone’s native properties, which makes our networks flexible platforms to provide specific capabilities to different services and customers. Static slicing was possible with 4G, he agrees, but immensely complicated.
Blanco insists, “These services will be extremely attractive and 2024, we will include dynamic pricing in the roadmap, combining dynamic slicing and the edge so we can offer whatever we decide on. Beyond slicing, to help us monetise and really offer value to customers, we can maximise the opportunity by working with hyperscalers and the industry to reach into the developer community.”
The end is in sight?
“We have crystal clear plans and my personal opinion is we are building the foundations of the network that will be
massified between 2025 and 2030, but not before because we have still a huge legacy that we need to evolve and manage. Telefonica is in the best position though, as it’s switching off its copper network in 2024 in Spain, as the entire population will have access to FTTH.”
He predicts, “Soon 100% of the software pieces will be available; the velocity of implementing it in the network will depend on CapEx capacity which is linked to revenues. Now it’s time to deploy as we come to the end of the technology momentum and begin operational momentum.”