Contributed by Robert Curran, Appledore Research.

FutureNet World 2023: The Six ‘Ps’ Shaping Automation Strategies.

I blame Neil McRae.

If, as a 15-year-old he hadn’t given a future tech giant a point-by-point rundown of the shortcomings of his company’s development platform, the course of IT – and thereby Telecom – history might have been very different.

We might have believed that low-to-zero growth was a reasonable ambition. That innovation meant engineers working in rarefied labs on long-range projects, rather than addressing the needs of today’s customers. Or that the whole business of telecom was somehow too special for its very foundations to be rocked.

But that’s not how things are panning out. Such beliefs are not the future of telecom, an industry which is now more fundamentally intertwined than ever with our personal, social, corporate, economic and environmental progress.

The good news is that on the basis of FutureNet World 2023, telecom might just be getting it. Far greater automation and intelligence are essential and fundamental, even if technology is only one component of the way forward. There is a greater urgency in the air, and perhaps even a better sense of the sheer scale of the opportunities ahead. FutureNet World 2023 was an excellent window into current industry thinking and progress.

Kicking Off

The opening panel was pretty lively, with the people truly responsible for networks sharing some home truths, as well as acknowledging achievements.

Scott Petty, CTO at Vodafone, Greg McCall (Chief Networks Office) and Enrique Blanco (CTIO, Telefonica) were all pretty frank about the state of telecom. It is not the most well-liked sector (for consumers or investors), and its very success in providing resilient massive scale connectivity, has led to it being somewhat taken for granted. Nonetheless, telecom is under-fulfilling its potential. In hard economic terms, it’s not making decent returns for investors, and the future looks worse – unless we get serious about change.

There was a mood that telco does need to change and must look to new relationships and ways of working. Perhaps that is only to be expected at a conference on Automation, but this sample of telecom CxOs seems at least to be speaking with increased urgency. Certainly, these operators see a radically different future for their companies, specifically as software and solutions companies.

“All of us will become software organizations”

Ciena’s Joe Cumello referenced the 200+ projects that Blue Planet has gobally, and the need for more than just technology. The people and project skills – especially the ability to work with in cross-silo collaboration – are essential.

Vodafone commented that while telco had been keen on outsourcing, in a software era that model wouldn’t work. The pace of change, and the opportunities that brings, mean that telcos need to build up their own software skills. All speakers agreed that technology is not the problem, with BT talking about a new cadre of “netware people” with both network and IT skills.

“Let’s not fight over the crumbs, but [partner to] make a bigger cake” – Vodafone’s Andrea Dona, on the purpose of partnerships.

Enrique Blanco stressed the need for strong partnerships with common purpose – sustainability, autonomation top of the list.

Cumello emphasized the need for not-just-technology solutions. That goes all the way to how budget is allocated, who owns it, and the need for a new level of co-ordinating and coherence in how projects are initiated and managed. Network, IP and Ops are increasingly interdependent stakeholders – people! – and any talk of transformation must involve all three.

The real challenge today is brownfield, since that is where most people work, most of the network is, and most of the spend. Cumello summed up with “the future is now”, calling for telcos to accept that working practices of the last 20 years are essentially end-of-life.

Slicing

Not for the first time at a telecom conference, network slicing once again received a rather mixed reception.

Like Swisscom, BT’s Principal Network Strategist, Viraj Abhayawardhana, articulated a strategy based on delivering customers the best experience not necessarily the first. Could the priority given to “time-to-market” be giving way to a “best-to-market”? Or is this just a spin on CSP lack of ambition?

Undeterred, Colt’s Aaron Partouche talked about the need for an intelligent digital infrastructure and slicing as a “key pillar” of its strategy, though with closed-loop automation yet to be implemented.

Slicing continues to be accompanied by a large question mark, as operators struggle to figure out how to make a viable business model out of many niche requirements.

NaaS

Industry discussion on Network-as-a-Service (NaaS) continues to be somewhat muddled. Speakers from Colt, Swisscom and Itential did their best, but beyond the most basic of principles, the conversation diverges.

“On-demand” isn’t necessarily “Network-as-a-Service”. Nor are Network APIs. Johanne Mayer, the TM Forum’s transformation lead, commented “true NaaS means taking things out of current IT systems (i.e. BSS).” She went a step further: “a product that is defined in the BSS is a problem”. Such de-layering is a vision that Telenor seems all in on.

“Legacy network is a limiting factor” in achieving speed, said Ruza Sabanovic, EVP and Chief Technology Officer, Telenor. (Via its JV with Cisco, Telenor spin-out Working Group Two is offering a 100% cloud-based mobile core to support MVNOs).

“The integrated model for supporting enterprises is dead, disaggregated platforms are the future.”

Telenor is clearly in the Open camp and wants the global industry to get on board.

If it is to mean anything, then NaaS must be about more than simply exposing network APIs. There are a host of operational and commercial considerations needed, and at the end of it all, the need to make it profitable. What is also clear is that automation once again rises to the top – NaaS without automation makes no sense.

5G SA

5G SA is lagging. A lack of compatible devices, “suboptimal” CNFs (according to Vodafone’s Andrea Dona), and a missing killer use case are all dampening enthusiasm from telcos. Even if broadcasting is all up for it (Vodafone recently made a splash about the use of its 5G SA to carry TV from the coronation of King Charles III).

Dona admitted that the resources required for OSS transformation that 5G SA requires just haven’t been there, but that managing the transition to cloud-native will be the difference between winners and also-rans.

In enterprise, 5G SA is seeing lots of pilots, but the question is whether telcos will be able to scale multiples of these up into a meaningful (and profitable!) line of business.

Swisscom, a noted pioneer, has been intentionally cautious on 5G SA. As Mark Duessner, EVP of Mobile put it, “the market is not demanding [its] features”, buying more time for the operator to plan an eventual transition. It is not the benefits of 5G that are in question, but the benefits relative to 4G. Fundamentally, the NSA to SA is characterized by a shift from virtual network functions to fully containerized.

BT Digital’s Chief Architect Josie Smith added a welcome perspective to the event, reminding attendees and panelists that between a network API and the customer is an applications team whose primary question is not “How can I use this?” but “what is this going to do for customers?” Even within a single telco, the internal supply chain is changing. It’s all very well to imagine 5G SA applications, but there is no substitute for living enterprise customers’ experience. She also referred to progress in applying DevSecOps in BSS, but urged operators to take AIOps down into the network domain, citing BT’s partnership with ServiceNow Dynatrace as a source of learnings.

Michal Patryk Debickji from Reailize (a B-yond company) called out that today’s 5G had been deployed “like 4G”, with key new components (such as NWDAF) specifically left out because of their unfamiliarity to Ops teams.

Telco as a Platform

Deutsche Telekom’s Thomas van Briel (SVP Architecture & Strategy) explained DT’s Telco as a Platform (TaaP) vision, and how just a year ago (!) the company had reset its course to become a “leading digital telco”, fully embracing the TM Forum’s Open Digital Architecture. A pan-European Digital NOC is now resolving 70% of trouble tickets automatically and has cut truck rolls by 15%.

Thomas van Briel explains Deutsche Telekom’s Telco-as-a-Platform Strategy

160 Network Functions (40%) have been cloudified, with a that number expected to be almost 75% in 2025.

“Infrastructure should be seen as a commodity, not a differentiator”.

DT adopts a multi-cloud strategy, using hyperscalers where it makes sense. As Thomas put it: infrastructure is not a differentiator. On the other hand, automation certainly can be a differentiator, especially when it can be reused across any cloud-native network function. DT has a set of twelve key criteria from Orchestratability (my word) to license model that it uses to qualify network functions.

Thomas was one of many speakers to reference CAMARA, which will see DT put three of that initiative’s 20 APIs into commercial availability during 2023.

He signed off by commenting that it is more important to equip current teams with digital skills than seek new hires.

Open…for Business

Telus’ CTO Ibrahim Gedeon was frank about the cost of embracing openness. MTN’s Group CIO Nikos Angelopoulos was likewise sober about the industry’s progress in delivering the benefits of fully open networks. Basak Fouladi, CTO for KPN, also highlighted the gap between a decade of talking open and seeing it benefit telcos on a global scale.

Yet all were clear that open-ness is vital to greater speed. Amdocs’ Niall Norton sensed an “urgency shift”. It made for a lively discussion (“5G NSA is a travesty!” said Gedeon).

Awards

FutureNet World’s awards offer more signs for optimism over mere wishful thinking. It is good that large vendors feature in FutureNet World’s shortlists, and among the winners. By definition, their improvements have the greatest potential to affect the industry. But it is also good to see that they are not the only companies with automation successes to shout about: Cohere Technologies, Inmanta (a winner this year) demonstrate that operators should remain open-minded, and that no vendor has a monopoly on innovation.

Awards went to:

  • Best Automation Deployment – China Mobile, with Huawei.
  • Best Automation Solution – Netcracker for Network Domain Orchestration.
  • Best Network Disaggregation Award – Rakuten Symphony/Mobile for cloud-native Open RAN.
  • Most Innovative AI for Customer Experience – VMWare, with Network Scorecard rApp using the VMware RIC.
  • Best Orchestration Award – Inmanta, for Mobile Private Networks solution
  • Best AIOps Solution – Nokia, with BT for Homeview
  • Sustainability Award – Ericsson, for their Predictive Cell Energy Management solution.

The Technology Leadership for Enrique Blanco is fully deserved and was very graciously accepted. His call to “continuously learn” should be seen as a challenge to us all, more than an explanation of his own achievements.

Enrique Blanco Receives the Technology Leadership Award

Wrapping Up

Neil McRae closed the event with passion and not a little provocation. If his presentation made for uncomfortable listening, so much the better. Home truths are what an industry in search of its future needs.

To summarize a lively Q&A, the biggest threat that telecom faces is believing that DNA-level change is a bigger risk than maintaining the current way of working. (Yes, read that again). The challenges that telecom can – and should – help to solve range from personal to truly global, and everything in between.

My takeaway from the event was that six ‘Ps’ now are now shaping telecom automation strategies. They are: Programmability, Profitability, Platforms, People, Partnerships, and Planet. All six were strong themes at FutureNetWorld 2023.

The five-year-old FutureNet World conference series, free from legacy and excess baggage that other conferences may carry, provides the perfect and thoroughly professional forum for the industry to air, and rise to, this unique opportunity.

Next year’s FutureNet World will be at the later date of 1-2 October. 

Listen to Robert Curran and Francis Haysom’s post-show discussion on FutureNet World and RCR Wireless Live! in the Appledore Podcast.

The Network of the Future

In the opening panel session, Enrique Blanco explained that automation isn’t so much about any one thing – as about everything. Telefonica is building what it calls a “new operating model” for telecom, and an OSS that is “fully different” from what has gone before. And this isn’t just talk. Telefonica has a clear program over the next few years for large-scale implementation of its open, software- and AI-driven network principles, most notably in Open RAN.

Swisscom agreed that automation is an existential priority. Definitely not in the “nice to have” category, since it will be what enables a differentiating customer experience – especially for enterprise customers.

The idea of network as a platform enabling innovation (by others) was a recurring theme. This is as much a cultural challenge as a technical one. Lester Thomas (Vodafone) and Kim Larsen (T-Mobile) referenced programs aimed at fostering and enabling new third-party application developers to leverage their open, programmable networks – particularly for IoT. For example, using a “connected bike” (no, not this one) to crowdsource air quality monitoring.

Several speakers talked about enterprise customers wanting CSPs network platforms to be more integrated into their enterprise infrastructure. The combination of additional network telemetry, and the ability to alter the network’s parameters through APIs, means that enterprises want more direct control, rather than what Colt has called the “Procurement-to-Procurement” interface. Colin Bannon at BT Global said this included enterprises looking to integrate network change functions within enterprise apps such as ServiceNow. A far cry from being sidelined as commodity connectivity providers, then.

This is part of what is now meant by Customer Experience. “To what extent do you enable your network to be my network?”

And don’t tell the CFO, but “cost reduction is not our main priority” in spending on major change programs. At least, not now. It’s all about the experience – and enabling slick, responsive, intelligent new ones.

Telecom is learning not merely to live with uncertainty, but to positively relish in it.

The talk was of new, untried and unknowable customer needs. So it is readiness to adapt – whatever the future holds – that is most highly valued. Even over cost savings, if the various polls are to be taken at face value.

The discussion of edge is still undergoing some clarification, and attitudes vary, particularly driven by geography. The potential (and need for) edge infrastructure in small country like the Netherlands is radically different from, say India, or the US. We can expect to see greater precision on discussions about edge going forward – on those applications which give operational benefit to CSPs, vs those which deliver a clear benefit to end customers.

Hyperscalers featured in the agenda and in the content, as telecom continues its nervous dance (Partner? Competitor? Supplier?). As Ned Taleb of B-Yond put it on Day 2: “Hyperscalers will go around telcos if they need to…”

Farmers and Fisheries

There were a lot of “where are we?” opening questions, reflecting the fact that telecom’s various transformation efforts remain a work in progress, with much to be done. And the work still to be done varies greatly from CSP to CSP. But at least there was consensus that real progress requires a combination of technology, mindset change (in short: “closed” to “open”, in every sense), process change (from siloed/vertical/domain to service/horizontal), and greater level of understanding of customers’ problems and context. One size won’t fit all – but you’ll still need it to be automated.

The session on 5G and industry moderated by Chris Lewis contained some challenging truths for telcos. Especially for 5G, telcos’ relevance will depend on them getting into the weeds (literally) with their customers in agriculture, their feet wet (literally) on fishfarms, and hands dirty (literally) in manufacturing. That will mean changing telco sales engagements from (as Telus’ Ibrahim Gedeon put it) “minutes and (mega)bytes” to business solutions partnerships. It’s the very opposite of “zero-touch”. It’s an entertaining panel.

Standards

In a panel on end-to-end service orchestration there was an interesting discussion between Inmanta’s Stefan Walraven and DT‘s Klaus Martiny, regarding the credibility of delivering end-to-end service automation in six months, in the absence of standards. The exchange highlights the continued delicate tension between standards and speed, with CSPs working within the standards groups, but being prepared to reach past them to deliver what Roy Chua summarised as “tangible wins”. Quite.

Roy asked if we were in danger of “getting really good at re-inventing the wheel”, which – to its credit – is exactly the sort of provocative aside that FutureNet is happy to accommodate, without causing a fit of nervous coughing. (In another session, Mattias Fridstrom from Telia Carrier asked: “who actually needs a telco? If you can buy your SDWAN directly and run all your applications in the cloud?” – refreshing to see courageous questions being asked in public!)

Roy Chua, AvidThink, Stefan Walraven, Inmanta, Luis Velarde Tazón, Telefonica S.A, Klaus Martiny, Deutsche Telekom AG, Russ Bartels, Windstream

AI & Automation

Orange believes AI can bring value to every phase of network lifecycle: Design/Build, Run, and Optimize. It also explained some of its use of Google Cloud Platform (Appledore recently published a profile on GCP). FTTH maintenance using AI has led to substantial reduction in field interventions.

In a panel on AI and Automation moderated by Appledore’s Patrick Kelly, Airtel provided insights into the market squeezes that mean automation truly is an existential issue for Indian telcos – hundreds of millions of low-APRU customers; huge rise in data consumption; extreme competition and a vast and varied geography. The perspective from Randeep Sekhon was especially compelling.

Patrick Kelly (Appledore Research), Michael Fränkle (TDC NET), Bradley Mead (Ericsson), Randeep Sekhon (airtel)

The same panel revealed that concerns about trusting AI are being rapidly overtaken by practical realities – there’s no way to run even today’s networks with human intelligence alone. And progress is already being made on closed-loop resolution of sizeable percentage of day-to-day network problems.

Appropriately, FutureNet closed with an interview with Rakuten’s Tareq Amin. The discussion is wide-ranging, but if you really want to understand the Future of Networks – that’s just about the best place to start.

Appledore Research provides analysis of many of the topics covered in FutureNet World, including Network Automation, Open RAN, 5G and Industrial Automation, Edge and Telco Cloud, Security as well as vendor profiles and market share reports. Follow Appledore for updates.