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5G Standalone in action – the power of programmability and interoperability

Mark Chong, Deputy CEO of Thailand’s AIS, talks to Contributing Editor Annie Turner about the drivers of automation, fighting the IT stack and the importance of speed. 

Mark Chong became Deputy CEO of Thailand’s mobile operator Advanced Info Service (AIS) in December 2022. Previously he worked at Singtel for more than two decades, most recently in the role of Global CTO for almost six years. Singtel holds a 24.99% stake in Intouch Holdings, AIS’ parent company. Singtel is regarded as one of the world’s most advanced telcos, thriving in one of the fastest growing and most dynamic regions. Experience and expertise is definitely not lost in translation between the two.

Like Singtel, AIS has deployed 5G Standalone which Chong states “drives more automation because without automation, it becomes humanly impossible to handle all the various tasks”. He adds, “There’s a big difference between 4G and 5G: with 5G the network becomes programmable and there are more network elements for engineers to handle. When something breaks, how do you deal with that?”

“We really need to automate all the manual, mundane, trivial stuff to enable engineers to focus on the more sophisticated pieces of engineering,” Chong says.

At Singtel, Chong’s team created zero-touch trouble tickets, sending tickets into the field and began automating recovery of circuits to reduce the back-end’s workload. “We did things like automating our collection of firewall policies and their configuration to reduce labour – things that normally took a few hours came down to a matter of minutes,” he says.

AIS is taking a similar approach with trouble tickets to shorten recovery times, but first-call resolution is a big priority too. To help achieve this, data analytics of various network metrics are fed directly to call centre agents which also speeds up call handling.


Programmable, interoperable

Along with being programmable, 5G has other new capabilities, like orchestration, network slicing and the ability to expose network commands to third-parties including customers. “Manufacturing clients, for example, now want some say about how the network performs,” he explains. “5G networks can operate on commands generated from the customer’s network – under certain circumstances and conditions, of course – but when things break, where’s the cause?”

Chong gives real, commercial examples of interoperable scenarios: Singtel deployed its 5G infrastructure network solutions at a car manufacturing facility in Singapore. The radio coverage within the factory drives manufacturing processes. The same solution, which runs on Singtel’s Paragon orchestration platform, is used in vehicle manufacture in Thailand to monitor the power current.

AIS is also implementing a discrete, private 5G network for an open mining company. The above-ground network will drive autonomous excavators via communication links. He suggests a similar approach could be deployed in ports, which have many containers and also rely on automatic guided vehicles. However, Chong stresses, “Each customer has its own requirements so we have to listen to them and see how we can adapt our solution to suit their needs”.


Rethinking the IT stack

Interweaving customers’ networks into their own 5G infrastructure means most telcos must fundamentally rethink their IT stacks. “If we don’t, it is impossible to support all these new requirements at the required speed,” Chong says.

“The OSS needs to be the right set of metrics and measurements; processes need to be reinvented, rethought,” he continues. A simple example is that previously, field workers were not dispatched to a customer’s premises if something went wrong whereas now “we have started to employ enhanced radio in a car factory and the private network in the mine…I need to provide field operational support for these installations. I must change the structure of my support teams for customers,” he comments.

“We must change what we measure around that radio in the field and be able to pipe [operational information] to the customer’s dashboard because now business mission-critical processes run on the network.”

How far is AIS on its network automation journey? He replies, “I’d say it’s in its early stages but moving in the right direction. One of the issues is our monolithic IT stack. To introduce new capabilities requires investment in resources and quite a bit of effort. It’s not just about having a modular OSS, but the whole modular IT stack, including billing and your front-end digital shop – wherever you’re seeing customers, from the cradle to the grave, in the BSS and for omnichannel.”


APIs and making radical changes

At FutureNet Asia 2023 Mark Chong will be on the panel: Operational transformation – Accelerating the journey to zero-touch automation

These radical moves cannot be made overnight. AIS’ approach is to introduce application program interfaces (APIs) in certain segments of the stack to link various parts for internal use. He elaborates, “Likewise, you need open APIs to interoperate with the customer’s network, to introduce new capabilities, new elements into your network.

“As a brownfield operator, we need a new reference architecture, so we’re running an architecture at two speeds. You have to create a new mediation layer or new enterprise service bus and progressively migrate elements onto it. The telcos must control the architecture, the enterprise service bus and the open, standard APIs to connect new boxes to the bus. You can get an outsourcer to build it, but the CIO or CTO must control which elements come into their network and how you hook them up.”

What does he mean when he refers to open APIs? Chong explains, “Singtel is a member of the GSMA board and one of the founders of its Open Gateway. Prior to that, we had embarked on the adoption of TM Forum’s Open APIs.

“One of the things we are very loud about is that CAMARA [which is part of the Open Gateway initiative to support abstracting from network APIs to service APIs] should be compatible with or should absorb TM Forum’s APIs into its larger set because many telcos and companies have already adopted them and we should not reinvent the wheel.

“We should focus very much on having a unified, harmonious, federated outcome that enables companies to go to market quickly and introduce new use cases. It’s less about who has the right technology, but rather, let’s bring the benefits of 5G’s programmability and operability across various systems and platforms to benefit customers.”


Becoming cloud native

This pragmatism extends to AIS’ approach to cloud. “We are largely working with our network vendors as we cannot do it all by ourselves – and they have gone into telco cloud. Are they ‘truly native’ like the OTT hyperscalers? I would say not to the same level…but good enough,” Chong says.

He points out that the various global cloud and network equipment providers each have their own approach. “Some of them tried to be the universal transporter or handler of workloads from one cloud to another. VMware does that quite well, but the rest are pretty proprietary,” Chong says.

“Each cloud provider brings the benefits of agility, resiliency, scale but in their own proprietary way and the commercials of each cloud are different, so you must go in with your eyes open.…You have to think through what could go into the cloud and what should not. If you have to refactor applications [for them to become cloud native] that’s a big chunk of work. Some are better left alone; for others with a longer runway, it’s worth the effort.”


AI to benefit customers

How much will the use of AI, including generative AI, be instrumental in automation and delivering benefits to customers? Chong says while he is very interested in generative AI’s potential it is immature but he believes it will raise productivity.

For now, machine learning (ML) is the most common type of AI used by AIS (and many other telcos), such as “in the go-to-market piece,” Chong says. “We analyse data to build as much of a 360-degree customer profile as possible, then we cook up campaigns and come up with bundles for next best offers” proffered via the digital channel or store the customer choses.

Chong thinks AI could speed up handling queries from customers about promotions or their bills. “We will train a model to understand our policies and handle customers’ requests,”. He adds, “We have an AI-enabled voice robot that can conduct a human-like conversation when reminding customers about payment. We are in the final trial stages and it should be launched soon, for consumers and enterprise customers.”

ML also correlates alarms to engineers who can more quickly identify and focus on the root causes among the “ocean of alarms”. Singtel deploys cognitive technology to gather data about customers’ use of fixed broadband deployments and data analysis for preventive maintenance such as rebooting modems before their memory fills up, easing congestion.


The benefits of hindsight and speed

What would Chong do differently if he were starting over with network automation? He muses, “The end goals remain the same but we could have done better by bringing more people on board within the organisation, getting teams installed faster, learning new technologies faster. When we started, we were a bit tentative in trials and tests.

“We’re now more certain that we are on the right path. We’ve put things in place that have greatly improved our processes, reduced development time, etc. We’re now bringing on more parts of the organisation as they can see what we’ve done and are onboard.”

Mark Chong will be on the panel discussing Operational transformation: Accelerating the journey to zero-touch automation at FUTURENET ASIA in Singapore 18 & 19 October, at 4pm on Day 1.

Industrial internet users increasingly rely on telecom-tech orchestrators, says Telenor Asia business and partnerships chief

Contributed by Eugene Teh Yee, SVP, Head of Business and Partnerships, Telenor Asia & keynote speaker at FutureNet Asia 2023.

Telenor Asia recently closed the two largest telecom mergers in Southeast Asia. These mega-deals come at a time of rapid transformation in the region: fast-growing data usage, billions of connected devices, and the rise of new technologies such as 5G and machine learning. As Telenor Asia’s Head of Business and Partnerships, Eugene Teh has a firm grasp on how these changes are affecting Asia. We asked him why Telenor Asia sees the need for bigger, stronger digital champions in Asia and how Telenor Asia’s scale helps the telco operators in their portfolio deliver new solutions to customers, businesses, and governments.

“We’re at a juncture in Asia. 5G is starting to reshape the landscape. There are ambitious digital transformation agendas at the national level and more pressure on businesses, too. Who can best enable these changes? Within the tech ecosystem, Telenor Asia’s operating companies are local, they are strong brands, and they are trusted,” says Teh. “This puts them in an ideal position to support the digital transformation of their local partners.”

Teh believes this opportunity requires that telecom operators evolve from pure connectivity providers to technology orchestrators, rapidly bringing together platforms and network solutions to develop new capabilities to better serve enterprises.

“Telenor Asia is looking at the next horizon, where value will be created tomorrow.”

Eugene Teh, Head of Business and Partnerships, Telenor Asia

“We think of 5G as the industrial internet and Telenor Asia’s operating companies are already working on big scale enterprise projects in many sectors. In the energy and shipping industries, they’ve built internet of things platforms for safer and smarter logistics. In banking and retail, they have solutions to digitalize and streamline the many touchpoints,” he says. “In each case, the solutions are tailored to each enterprise’s requirements. They’re able to anchor a project that is using multiple sub-systems and still deliver a solution very quickly.”

In Thailand and in Malaysia, Telenor Asia owns roughly a third of each market’s leading operator: True Corporation and CelcomDigi. The latter is now collaborating with Petronas to equip its offshore platforms with full wireless connectivity—a first in Asia. In Thailand, True Corporation was recently awarded GSMA’s 5G Living Challenge award for a use case at Siriraj Hospital that is saving lives with connectivity solutions that track ambulances and applies machine learning to the triage process.

“It’s about bringing multiple pieces together as an enterprise solution is complicated,” says Teh. “And this is where Telenor Asia can take local operators to the next level. For an initial proof-of-concept for offshore connectivity in Malaysia, we called on Telenor Maritime, who have very extensive experience providing robust connectivity in very demanding environments. In a smart meter use case, we partnered with Telenor IoT to connect devices across operators. Our scale also allows us to establish stronger partnerships with hyperscalers when needed. That mix of strong local presence and global scale is Telenor Asia’s strength.”

Telenor Asia also brings a longer perspective on where connectivity is headed. As the former Head of Business at digi (now CelcomDigi), Eugene Teh recalls that the focus in-market tends to be on immediate needs and existing business opportunities. In his role at Telenor Asia, he can get ahead of those needs.

“Telenor Asia is looking at the next horizon, where value will be created tomorrow. A lot of future value will be in large scale industrial use cases using a combination of technology (5G, cloud, edge computing, AI etc), with the right infrastructure, right partners and understanding of local regulations. Telenor Asia is spotting where the next opportunities will be and preparing the partnerships and solutions that will allow our operating companies to have products on hand when their market is ready,” says Teh. “It can make the difference between playing catch-up and being the first one ready to deliver.”

To achieve this ambition, Teh underscores the need for new structures that can capitalize on opportunities more quickly. This is why Telenor Asia, in addition to its recent mergers, continues its exploration of how to become even more agile.

“Telenor Asia has put the pieces together to make this work: market-leading positions, links to the best partners globally, and a nimbler organisation structure. The result is that we have strong, local, digital champions; and an owner in Telenor Asia with the right capabilities to back them up,” Teh concludes.

  • Coming soon: Can Asia get ahead of the AI race? We asked an expert who advises the EU and heads AI research at Telenor 
  • Coming soon: Energy challenge from Asia’s fast-rising data usage calls for new thinking says Telenor Asia head of tech

For more insights from Telenor Asia, visit here

A long game: driving patient urgency to reinvent Vodafone’s networks

Scott Petty, CTO, Vodafone Group, describes how many strands and immense effort, woven into a careful strategy, are building a next-gen telco. By Annie Turner, Contributing Editor

Scott Petty has worked for Vodafone, based in the UK, for just over 14 years. Having held a number of positions, he moved from being CTO of the UK operating company in April 2021 to become Chief Digital and Information officer for the group. He retained that role when he was promoted to CTO of Vodafone Group with dual responsibility for Vodafone Technology in January 2023. The Technology unit has a team of more than 30,000 people spread across Europe, Africa and Asia.

Petty is known as a clear, considered speaker, with a refreshing habit of refuting received wisdom with quiet conviction. For instance, the strategic decision to add 7,000 software engineers when many think the primary motive for network automation is to reduce headcount. Petty says, “This an area I’m passionate about. I think most telcos thought about headcount in the wrong way.

“They counted employees at their company; you need to look at your total workforce, which consists of your own people, the people in your offshore centres, then all the people who work for systems and network integrators to deliver services to your organisation.

“When you take that total headcount view, our overall headcount is going down because we are automating more, but our own Vodafone employee headcount is going up…We realised that if we wanted to win in digital, build platforms and do the sorts of automation we talked about, we needed our own software engineers and our own capabilities. We couldn’t rely on outsourcing and third parties to do that effectively.”

Objectives, not numbers

Numbers are only part of the story, Petty points out: “Our employees are linked to Vodafone’s objectives; of course, external service providers deliver the objectives of their company…If you can break that and take more control yourself, you can move faster and end up with much better quality. Over the last couple of years, our operational performance has improved dramatically and the number of incidents is well down.”

Vodafone is a long way towards meeting that target of adding 7,000 software engineers “and we’re ahead of our business case in terms of cost savings for insourcing,” he says. “There has been some [additions] from retraining staff, but a lot of it has been hiring new people, bringing in graduates building our shared services centres across India, Egypt and nearshore centres in Europe.

“Consequently, our headcount has gone up in Technology as we’ve added those capabilities, but our external spend with systems integrators has gone down by more so it’s helped us deliver our cost savings targets as well.”

Being the B/OSS

In a similar vein, what would Petty have done differently at the start, knowing what he knows now? “Been more dictatorial with vendors on what we expect them to support [and] we would have invested a lot more in our data analytics capability, getting our data sources into a Big Data ocean, then getting everyone to write their APIs and calls to that,” he replies.

“It took a long time to break the siloed approach of OSS vendors and automation vendors who want to have their own datasets, their own data pools, and then make their own decisioning based on top of that. You can harmonise the data and where you put that data, and then use them as a decision-making presentation; that is, you get a lot better automation than if you rely on an end-to end-vendor.”

He says, “[OSS is] by far the hardest, due to lots of smaller vendors with lots of monolithic software stacks that aren’t using open data sources and open APIs. It’s been a real challenge to evolve that area and a lot of it we’ve built ourselves.”

Regarding BSS, Petty adds, “We’re writing all our own digital channels, our own apps and websites. We’re not relying on BSS vendors and all their components…They didn’t give us the flexibility and scale we wanted.”

The road to Standalone

Just how much is 5G Standalone (5G SA) an evolution of the other initiatives towards network automation? “It builds on everything we’ve been doing for the last 15 years – virtualising our core networks using software automation,” Petty states. “We’ve been doing software-defined networking (SDN) to control network elements in 4G, then 5G NSA [Non-standalone] and that became the enabler for us to do 5G SA.

“The industry has been at this for a long time and thank goodness we have because we’ve learned a lot. It wasn’t that easy to virtualise a traditional EPC [evolved packet core] and run it in an automated fashion. It took a lot to get that to work effectively, with the same levels of stability and performance. We’ve needed that time over the last years learning about network automation and virtualisation of the core network to get it to perform appropriately.”

Now another big goal that requires a terrific effort looms with the shift to cloud native “because that’s the only way to take advantage of the real benefits of cloud,” he says. “For auto-scaling, massive horizontal scale, you need to be cloud native; you need componentised software to make that happen.

“It’s taken a lot of work for software vendors to rewrite their core nodes – their GGSNs [GPRS support nodes], their HLRs [home location registers] – all those elements to make them cloud native [because] they had monolithic stacks that relied on a close linkage between their software and proprietary silicon to correct performance.

“As you move to more open silicon and started to virtualise, they had to recode a lot of those platforms to make them work effectively. That brought along some new vendors like Affirmed which was bought by Microsoft, so it started to create more competition in the core network.”

The telco world – and timetable

There are still only about 40 5GSA implementations globally. How far are we from scaling and monetising attributes like slicing and low latency? Petty replies, “I think you’ll see it first in mobile private networks leveraging some of those capabilities*. We’ve seen deals like that in ports, factories, mines and so on.

“In the broader context, I think we’ll start to see scaled applications using those environments mid-decade or maybe later in the decade. That’s the telco world. You have to build the infrastructure, build the coverage and enable developers to build new applications and services that sit on top of them.”

Kubernetes expands

As Kubernetes was designed to containerise storage and CPUs, how big is the challenge to extend it to the network? “[It’s needed] a lot of development, a lot of R&D, a lot of work as an ecosystem company to make it work,” he says. “Open RAN is very similar; as we build Open RAN solutions, there is a lot of learning what has to happen in the software layer to take standard industry components then get them to perform and scale at the level the network needs.”

How painful is that integration overhead? “The first issue of all is the data. Machine learning, AI and automation rely on data and sources of data and being able to learn from those datasets. Having a clear strategy for the collation of that data in a structured model that your tools can then work on top of is one of the key elements for creating that interoperability,” Petty explains

He stresses this is “not just the APIs, but giving lots of different tools access to the same data sets so they can do their very specialised task in a way that makes sense. Sometimes the tools need to talk to each other, sometimes they just need to use the same data set to make the decision that they’re performing.”

Petty dismisses the notion of a programmable network as marketing speak rather than an actual aim in telecoms. He asks, “Can customers call APIs on a network today and provision services? Yes. Can we do that ourselves? Yes and we do it all the time.” The web application firewall (WAF) is a good example.

Vodafone’s website and MyVodafone app requires roughly 200 releases a month. WAF’s configuration is integrated into the CI/CD pipeline which means “as we do those 200 releases, the network elements below them are automatically configured, tested and validated to make sure that as we move our code from dev to pre-production to production, that process happens automatically,”

Scott Petty, CTO, Vodafone Group, is speaking at FutureNet World, 3-4 May, London

Petty says.

“That agility is super important as you move to cloud but also in your own data centres’ environments as you move to Agile and try to speed up the network.”

He concludes, “Our goal is automation and enabling agility; giving people the right tool sets and APIs to make configuration calls into the network, without needing to place orders, and do all those kinds of things in the areas that make sense and invest in them.”

* Shortly after this interview, Vodafone unveiled the jewel in its MWC23 crown: a prototype of an Open RAN-compatible 5G network-in-a-box, which, if productised, could have a huge impact on the 5G private network market.

BT – automating complex network functions will underpin emerging enterprise technologies

Greg McCall, BT’s new Chief Networks Officer, talked to FutureNet World about the opportunities and challenges of his role.

On 1 November 2022, Greg McCall became BT’s Chief Networks Officer, heading up Network Services, a newly created organisation which brings together the design, delivery, and operations teams across Networks. The organisation comprises almost 6,500 colleagues globally with teams leading in areas such as Private Cloud, Mobile and Network Applications and Services.

Please could you explain the rationale for the creation of this organisation?

It’s first worth noting that the creation of our Network Services unit is part of a wider change which rebalances the networks and security elements across the entirety of BT Networks – with the aim of both simplifying our organisation and ensuring security is at the top of our agenda. Specifically on the creation of Networks Services, bringing our core Networks teams closer together is helping us to simplify operations, create clearer accountabilities across teams, and ultimately deliver better services to our customers. At a time when the demand for connectivity is rising, we think these changes will not only better equip us to manage the technological challenges that this presents, but also to better maximise its opportunities.

Is the reorganisation also due to the way operations need to change to support autonomous (zero-touch) networks and the proliferation of DevOps practices like CI/CD/CT which sort of collapses the old model into many, much smaller stages?

Our cloud-native transformation is something we’ve spoken about a lot over the past year or two as an integral part of our network modernisation efforts. Much of this work has been successfully completed – for example our new 5G core is live with over 10 million customers already transitioned onto it – so the reorganisation isn’t directly related to this. We do though expect those benefits around simplification of processes and closer integration of teams to greatly benefit areas such as DevOps, where our cloud-native approach does of course focus on smaller, more frequent upgrades across what is a more intelligent network.

The same is true when it comes to automation, which is important across all areas of BT Networks, whether it’s through enabling us to upgrade and enhance our networks in a faster and more efficient manner or monitoring and identifying issues within the context of operational resilience.

How does the change in operations and the prevalence of network automation play into your wider cloud migrations and the shift to cloud-native techs? How much is this intertwined with/dependent on the progress of 5G SA deployment?

Everything is very much connected in this respect. We’re making great progress on our journey towards building the UK’s best converged network infrastructure, and both edge compute and network cloud are integral to achieving this, not least by enabling enhanced network capabilities including automation.

Everything is then underpinned by our new cloud-native 5G core, which is an essential platform for the deployment of nationwide 5G SA services in the future. Ultimately the combination of a cloud-native converged network powering 5G SA will enable us to offer exactly the type of capabilities and services our customers need, both now and into the future. While right now the 5G services ecosystem is still in its infancy, as network quality and accessibility improve with the arrival of SA, so too will innovation and the services landscape.

What do you see as the main drivers for automation now and going forward? For example, the provisioning of private networks through slicing, being able to offer companies connectivity with a specific set of parameters to match particular applications and workloads?

Having automation built into our cloud-native core allows us to quickly and easily optimise the platform to support 5G SA and the new services that we see this enabling. Network slicing is certainly one such application that we’re exploring, in which automating complex network functions creates the potential to unlock a range of emerging enterprise technologies which require the ultra-low latency of 5G SA – including IoT and edge devices.

Through our 5G core we’ve also created a platform for network exposure, and we envisage that this too will help drive automation in the future, bringing our partners into the delivery process by giving them the ability to develop their own products using our network.

What do you see as your long-term goal – let’s say to 2030 because goals will always change as tech and the market evolve? What major initiatives do you need to put in place or to take to achieve those goals?

We have set a number of ambitious goals that we want to achieve in the coming years. Perhaps the one most relevant to what we’re discussing today is our ambition to deliver high performance 5G solutions across the entirety of the UK by 2028, supported by a unique, fully converged smart infrastructure. We’ve invested heavily in our network and worked tremendously hard to ensure we’re well on track to meet this goal.

Last month we announced the arrival of EE 5G to almost 500 smaller communities across the UK, ranging from smaller market towns and villages through to seasonal rural hotspots and some of our national parks – meaning the service is now available to customers in over 1,000 UK cities, towns and villages. We’re also supporting this goal through continued innovation, aimed at improving the reach, resilience and energy efficiency of our networks. For example, our Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and stratospheric partnerships with OneWeb and SPL respectively are vitally important in paving the way for connecting ultra-remote communities, emergency responders and disaster recovery units.

Our 5G network already covers over 60% of the UK population, having last year hit the 50% mark one full year ahead of schedule. So, it’s not about implementing major new initiatives, but rather striving to maintain our network leadership through ongoing investment and innovation, which will enable us to realise this and other ambitions.

How will relationships with hyperscalers help you meet those goals?

Our relationships with hyperscalers are always going to be important in enabling us to achieve our goals and ultimately deliver the best services to our customers. We already work closely with partners like Amazon, Google and Microsoft, and – given the fast-paced and ever-evolving nature of the industry we work within – we’re continuously exploring the potential of how and where their cloud technologies can further support our networks infrastructure.

How can you prepare for automation at the edge, given that exactly where and what the edge is still evolving?

One of the most important reasons behind us wanting to become cloud native was that it enables us to bring 5G to the edge as we roll out new services. As such, we’ve invested heavily in building a converged cloud architecture, supported by automation, that we know can support services at the edge of the network, delivering the reliability, latency and scalability needed via an always-on connection.

We talked about the 5G services ecosystem being in its infancy, but there are early-adopter examples, particularly in an enterprise private networks capacity, which demonstrate its potential. Whether that is in allowing organisations to maximise edge computing devices such as sensors and remote devices, or opening up the practical use of digital twins by providing a route for faster and cheaper testing and remote collaboration on complex, expensive or mission-critical equipment – we know the capability is there, but what’s also crucial is that we’ve created an infrastructure with the built-in scalability and reliability to support the widespread adoption of such technologies.

BT, is a host operator of FutureNet World, 3-4 May, London and Greg McCall, Chief Networks Officer is a Keynote Speaker

Orange automation reinvents operations, powers innovation

Laurent Leboucher talks to Contributing Editor Annie Turner about automation’s pivotal role in network evolution and service innovation

Laurent Leboucher is Group CTO at Orange and leads Orange Innovation Networks.  Automation has existed for many years as a way to simplify human operations and this is particularly true over the last few years as telecoms networks have become increasingly complex.

More recently, “with our data and AI experts, we have worked to optimise, automate and avoid many repetitive technical tasks with different use cases,” Leboucher says. He cites using machine learning to track and fix faults in voice over IMS and LTE as a favourite example. Problems can occur on the transport side, in the core or the RAN and it used to take five to six hours, on average, to identify the root cause, and when it’s in the RAN, find the exact radio site. Applying machine learning to data drawn from across the network has reduced this to minutes, and some of them can be fixed automatically.

“This is extremely powerful, and gives us good hope to extend these techniques to many other use cases. Our ‘AI empowered network’ programme’s main goal is to reap the benefits of using network data to become much more predictive,” he explains. “Even if we are not completely predictive, we can be much smarter in the way we seek out root causes from all the alarms”.

“We want to move to a smart network operating centre that needs no lighting as it doesn’t need people to watch alarms that are handled in automation. We need smart people to handle complex cases who can focus on the issues that need to be solved. Our new job is to design how to automate the resolution.”

Leboucher continues, “Around operations, we have made significant efforts in the past few years sharing NOC – network operating centre facilities both in Europe and Africa. t’s not just a question of monitoring from a central place but how we interface central monitoring and the field operations within the different countries, allowing them to become more efficient.”

Different as well as better

Moving network functions, network services and workloads to the cloud is another critical evolutionary step for networks, and an industry-wide phenomenon, Leboucher says: “This is extremely important and not just about disaggregation; it’s how we move to a new industrial model. We need to apply DevSecOps to network workloads, to make savings and gain the agility to provide new kinds of network services, in particular for Network-as-a-Service (NaaS), mobile private networks and slicing.

Leboucher considers NaaS first for “fixed global connectivity for companies across the world. We have a large international backbone that we continue to invest in, transforming it step by step into a very powerful platform. This will allow us to provide customers with network on-demand connectivity – including Ethernet, MPLS and SD-WAN – and combine it with additional functions like cloud connectivity and security including SASE [secure access service edge]. We can also extend it to IoT and other added value functions.

“We strongly believe that this is a very important enabler for revenue growth and we need agility to bring in new partners and to enable customers to use digitally this network capability. That’s one part.”

The other part is deploying mobile networks’ new capabilities on demand, such as network slicing within country markets. The slices will be delivered for private mobile networks, “at large scale and in significant numbers, on the same infrastructure.” he says.

“We are working on the deployment of 5G Standalone in all European countries; the first will go live very soon. We need to automate the lifecycle of network functions, to have the same practices on the network side as we use for digital IT. We need vendors to be part of the same pipeline.”

One homogenous pipeline

Orange aims to automate all the downstream activities via the CI/CD pipeline, including security requirements which “we need to fulfil across the whole chain. This means there is a considerable impact on processes and people: it’s not something we will manage in a few weeks,” Leboucher acknowledges.

To help with this important transition, Orange has applied TM Forum’s autonomous network maturity model in several countries.. “It was extremely useful and produced a lot of information, so we want to extend it and use it as a way to monitor progress of that transformation,” he says.

Leboucher continues, “Our long-term vision is a homogenous telco cloud but today that is not yet the case.” The main issue is some vendors insist on vertical mode operations, delivering workloads into their established distinct cloud infrastructures, even when there are several from the same vendor, they do this for each function, resulting in too many clouds operating side by side. He believes network vendors cannot stay in this vertical mode in the long run because it creates friction and slows down the end-to-end GitOps pipeline. “The telco cloud needs to be shared for all functions in the same network service,” he says, “and there are two ways of doing that.”

“One way is to work with hyperscalers, which will become even more relevant to the market for some use cases especially when national sovereignty is not required. The other way is for operators to come up with a common reference implementation and this is what we do with the Linux Foundation Europe through Project Sylva.”

The project was launched in November 2022: Deutsche Telekom, Ericsson, Nokia, Orange, Telecom Italia, Telefonica and Vodafone are to create an open source, cloud-based, software framework to lessen infrastructure fragmentation in Europe. Leboucher notes, “We are bringing as many operators and vendors [as we can] to join this initiative because we don’t only want to rely only on hyperscalers; we want to keep the choice and the capacity to do it ourselves.”

For some B2B use cases, Orange may work with hyperscalers to deliver connectivity plus IT functions, “but we need clear accountabilities,” Leboucher says. “We want to keep our core business as an integrator and operator of networks”.

Getting GitOps

Orange also wants to apply GitOps to “the distributed telco cloud, the infrastructure itself and, importantly, the workload to move to something much more intent driven,” he explains. “The beauty of GitOps and the Kubernetes style is defining what you need in a declarative way then the underlying mechanism automates everything by reconciliation with the desired state.”

Laurent Leboucher, Group CTO & SVP Innovation Networks, Orange, is speaking at FutureNet World, 3-4 May, London

Kubernetes’ original use was to containerise resources like CPU and storage, so work is needed to expand the model to network resources and apply it in a more holistic way. Linux Foundation’s Nephio project, announced in April 2022, is working on this with Google Cloud and Orange is fully involved.

Leboucher states, “Currently we are focused on how to containerise network functions; moving to cloud network functions, CNFs, is becoming a reality. The new network functions, mostly for the core, are made with containers. It’s not yet completely cloud native, but going in that direction and getting much better than a few years ago. We are really optimistic. Next, to get all the benefits, we need to implement the full end-to-end GitOps pipeline. If we learnt that DevOps was the operating model of the Cloud, GitOps will be the one of “cloud native” connecting Day0 to Day2, shifting from CI/CD (Continuous Integration / Continuous Deployment) to CI/CD/CO (Continuous Integration/Continuous Deployment / Continuous Operation). Having this in mind in terms of coverage, applied to network applications, infrastructures, security or even energy consumption, and including the native resiliency and auto/self-healing of the kubernetes platform, will lead to new operating ways and models that will make us more productive and competitive.”

Network Integration factories

Orange is creating network integration factories to onboard each function individually then orchestrate the full network service, integrating from end-to-end then automating all integrations so that every time there is an update – maybe something that needs a security patch for instance – the process is automated and can be deployed in minutes.

Leboucher continues, “We start with network services which can get immediate agility benefits from becoming truly cloud native and network functions not too complex to begin with: typically routing and switching functions on the backbone, overlay functions such as SD-WAN, signalling, IMS, EPC and extending progressively to new 5G core. They must be virtualised or preferably containerised but also become part of a completely automated delivery process via the CI/CD pipeline. We will extend it later to RAN and fixed access network.”

Open RAN, cloud RAN

How does Open RAN fit into this? Leboucher says, “We expect to move in this direction with Open RAN, which includes cloud RAN, but that will take more time. We will start small scale very soon then introduce it more globally. In the end, the pipeline will include network services with core functions and access functions, at the same time, in the same pipeline.

“With Open RAN you have to integrate components from several vendors We are on a learning curve in an industry today which is going pretty fast. We’ll be showing some concrete developments very, very soon.”

Orange will initially deploy Open RAN commercially in Europe at small scale to understand how the model compares with the traditional one. “Then we will increase automation and extend it to more complex sites with massive MIMO.” Leboucher says.

The cloud element of Open RAN is just one other step in the automation journey: “We will also use the RIC, the radio intelligent controller, for automation benefits,” he adds. “Just think of it as the new way to do C-SON [centralised self-organising networks] closer to real time, in less than a second for very innovative use cases”. Orange launched C-SON in more than 20 countries several years ago, automating radio configuration via a 30mn closed loop.

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.”

Programmable access

“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

Enrique Blanco, Chief Technology & Information Officer , Telefónica, is speaking at FutureNet World, 3-4 May, London

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.”

Why being data driven is a must to give customers what they deserve

As part of our data-driven blog series, we spoke to Alaa Malki, Chief Technology Officer, Mobily, to discuss the CSP’s journey and how it empowers them to better meet the needs of their customers. Being data driven is making an enormous difference to the operations of communication service provider (CSP) Mobily today, while also paving the way for the next generation of services.

Etihad Etisalat Company offers fixed line, mobile and internet services in Saudi Arabia under the brand name Mobily. Its CTO, Alaa Malki, has worked at the company in a variety of network roles since 2005 – the year after the company was set up.

Like many telcos, Mobily has striven to become data-driven to emulate the success of digital native companies. However, while many failed because they focused on new technologies rather than the desired outcomes, this is not the case with Malki.

He states, “First you have to set a goal and from that goal, you can set the journey wherever you want, or multiple journeys, but you have to have at least one target goal. For us with mobile specifically, the goal was very clear: customer experience.

“We’ve been working on this for a long time now and we’ve been recognized by the [Saudi] regulator CITC in 2021 as the best customer experience operator, when it comes to mobile and fixed. The mobile has also been recognized by Ookla as the best experience…operators are sitting on a huge lake of data and if we could monetize this data, through improving customer experience, then our customers’ journeys, the output will be great.”

He adds, “Being data-driven is becoming a must. For example, today, Mobily has the largest IoT network in the Middle East, which is extremely complex. You cannot manage this huge IoT network of around 10 million smart meters in the legacy way, with an engineer who looks at dashboards and those kinds of things. We need to look differently at the whole subject…networks become more and more complex as we add layers, 3G, 4G, 5G and who knows what’s going to come next year? From all these kinds of transport and layers, you need to find a single source [of truth]. The way to do that is via a data-driven journey, where you can look at all angles.”

Three birds, one stone

He explains how, over time, the goals for Mobily’s data-driven efforts have evolved: “At the start, we were thinking about it more as maximizing efficiency – you can introduce more automation and use things in a more efficient way.” Malki’s change in thinking “turned on a very interesting fact: the more you automate things, the greater the efficiency, but you also improve customer experience.

“Usually when you cut costs for efficiency, it’s seen as not caring so much about customers. The interesting situation here is that if you focus on customers and become more efficient, you do a very good job. AI used to be  [seen as] science fiction, but it is becoming a reality you can really depend on. We have multiple cases where we could monetize the network, reduce costs and improve the customer experience with just that one stone.”

The Hajj journey

Achieving multiple goals by being data driven was powerfully illustrated in 2022 by Mobily’s determination to give its customers the best possible experience during the Hajj. The Hajj is an annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, Muslims’ holiest city. All Muslims who are physically and financially able are obliged to perform the Hajj at least once.

This year the Hajj took place from the 7th to 12th of July. In April, the Saudi Ministry of Hajj and Umrah announced that 1 million international and domestic pilgrims would be given permission to perform Hajj. Given that Mecca’s usual population is about 1.6 million, it is an immense challenge for Mobily to ensure the best possible service during this period.

Malki stresses, “It’s not only important from a revenue point of view, it’s also   a pleasure to provide the kind of program they experienced and that they deserve: connecting to family, live streaming from the locations and if they have an emergency, they need to make calls. For all these aspects they need data.”

He adds “I want to thank Ericsson for the support so that we could use this data-driven concept whereby we can do all kinds of changes and optimizations in what was a very limited time. Every minute counts when within two or three days you have millions of people moving from location to location. You need these parameters adjustments and load trafficking – and you need to do it per minute.

“That’s the beauty when they’re using this open system to create algorithms so machines can start implementing in minutes, checking it and adjusting it by the minute. This mechanism can dramatically reduce the total cost. We did this with Ericsson this year as proof of concept and the outcome was very good, showing a major improvement for our main goal: better customer experience achieved with minimal resources. I am sure if we scale up this, it will definitely improve the [overall] TCO.”

Already, he explains, “We have wonderful examples where we are using automation for ticketing on the network, to detect a ticket or send it to the technicians who go to locations. It’s all automated. No-one takes the ticket, writes it up and puts it here or there, so you reduce a huge amount of cost. You have information in the right place in a second, and it chooses the right teams in the right locations, because it can see who is the nearest with the right equipment. It’s all in the algorithm. If you manage to optimize and implement it correctly, you get fantastic customer experience.”

Going back to the Hajj, he says, “If we take all this data and analyze it, we can predict what’s going to happen next year at certain locations – if this is a bottleneck street, or if there is a certain problem situation there. This information is very important for people in the field, to predict how they can do what. How they can evaluate their equipment, predict how much maintenance they need, to have a spare part and other factors.”

Doing magic

Achieving multiple goals is helped by “another big change,” he says, in “that network and IT are becoming as one session and from there, you can do magic…moving to cloudification, going to open architectures, using off-the-shelf products, and so on. You can even expand network sites quite fast; you can develop other things quite fast, but not in a legacy way. Agility is becoming an important factor.”

As networks evolve, it can be difficult to gauge or predict the total cost of ownership (TCO) although it is often a crucial element of the business case for new operational and business models.

“You need to start building it as layers,” Malki says. “First, you build the right digital infrastructure then you can build all kinds of smart and intelligent operations on top of it, so you build digital customer engagement. You have a customer-centric system and you can derive new services, whether they are digital services or upscaling a service – you name it, but in my view, it has to come in that sequence. It needs to be systematic.”

What should TCO cover? “This is a very important question,” Malki states. “It’s very hard in our industry to keep investing without [realizing] all the beautiful things we expected. There are difficulties with this in 5G today. We have the fixed wireless, but there are tons of other, promising things – more automation, private networks and network as a service – that we don’t have yet, or not in an easily scalable way that could generate major revenue. There are a lot of trials, but I don’t see it as a goldmine.”

In Malki’s view, this unpredictability and lag in expectations makes “being data-driven very important” because it aids agility, efficiency and preparedness for whatever happens. He points out the industry expected video calls to become mainstream then failed to foresee the explosion of social media on 4G which resulted in unimagined traffic growth. He says, “Now, with 5G, we are expanding the pipeline and creating better customer experience, but we are still looking for killer applications. It should not scare us. I have been in this industry for 22 years and seen this repetitive [pattern]”.

Readiness is all

Currently, 10 to 15 percent of Mobily’s mobile traffic is 5G, but the proportion is growing rapidly but, he cautions, “The network needs time: you cannot do this [transition to new services] in six months or a year, so you need to start this investment and experience now to enjoy the future”.

Malki is not moved by hype about the metaverse and various kinds of ‘reality’, but advises, “Let’s look from a different perspective. I recently saw the military is starting to use augmented reality-type technology to ease [the soldier’s] job on the field – militaries are often the first adopters”. GPS is a good example: “No-one can live without today; a lot of industries depend on it. Technologies require time. The technology is ready now, but perhaps not for end users – maybe they don’t have the best experience [yet] with this kind of gadget,” he adds.

He concludes, “TCO is an extremely critical factor. All operators need to invest in these new technologies. We see a lot of cases where people hesitate and wait. These things need investment now with a focus on customer experience and new devices, and things that will enlighten us in future. A data-driven transformation journey is a must for all operators… you need to adopt new technologies to reduce the complexity and improve your total cost.”

This article was originally published on the Ericsson website here on the 17th of January 2023.

STC enables Network Automation to propel and disrupt markets

Haithem M. Alfaraj, CTO, stc, is a keynote speaker at FutureNet MENA, 20 March, Dubai. In the lead-up to the event, he talks to FutureNet editor Annie Turner about the group’s constant focus to implement the objectives of network automation and evolve the corporate culture to propel and disrupt markets.

Haithem Alfaraj has been stc Group CTO for nine months, while previously he was the CTO of stc Saudi Arabia, since December 2018. stc Group was established in 1998 and operates in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, as well as in Bahrain and Kuwait. stc is the leading digital enabler in the region. The group has won the Speed Test Awards for the fastest and best mobile network coverage in the Kingdom, among many other accolades. It was also awarded the fastest mobile internet and mobile coverage in the Kingdom for five straight years, emphasising its commitment to assuring customer experience.

Network Automation

Alfaraj explains how STC Group propelled network automation. He said: “For the last seven years, the group prioritised network and operational automation, which underpinned the group’s achievements. The automation journey started in 2014 when we recognised the importance of reducing operational costs, which helped improve our customers’ experience”. “At the same time, the operational environment was becoming increasingly complex with 5G on the horizon, and customers sought to have the best provider who meets their expectations. As customers’ engagement and experience are of great importance to us, we adopted a two-prong strategy to reduce human interactions, providing automation, avoiding errors, and improving efficiency. That made our services and products to be fully digital”, he clarified. Alfaraj added: “The Kingdom’s demographics have a population average age of 31.8 years old and more than 55% of the population are under 34, which implies to say, they are all digitally enabled with extremely high expectations. Hence you cannot expect customers to visit a store or office to validate their ID. This is just a sample, of the importance to digitise everything. Accordingly, stc Group enabled the automation process for such matters.” Alfaraj highlighted how digital identities became a part of everyday life in the Kingdom, and how the overall social system demanded automated networks. He said, “Digital fingerprints became essential for verification and authentication processes, and the Saudi Government provided intense support to enterprises to support this digitalization”.

Aligning automation and business goals – Seven years is a long time in the digital world. How has stc’s thinking about automation changed over that time?

stc Group has a growth mindset. We have evolved our mission. In 2019, we established our DARE 2.0 strategy and vision to deliver ICT in the region, not only telecommunications. We pursued to achieve our automation objectives, exceed customers’ expectations and accomplish future growth. Consequently, stc Group directed its multiple subsidiaries to look into certain technologies including cloud computing, IOT, cybersecurity, software development, and Data centres as well as international connectivity, Towers set up, E-sports & Gaming, along many more technologies, in order to provide a fully-fledged digital enablement for the local market. We never had a single point on the roadmap for automation. One of the main reasons for changing the objectives was the benefits and outcomes we recognised in the automation process, and it created momentum and trust for stc Group.

Beyond success – What are your major success areas across the automation process?

stc Group extended automation beyond mobile network operations, making transmission less costly in fixed, transport, and optical networks. We expanded the automated domains and set more aggressive targets, to achieve higher goals. So, over the years, stc Group changed its operation to become more digital and more automated. We provided automatic ticket opening, ticket correlation, resolving network problems and self-healing in some of our technology domains. We reduced outages by 30% and the time to resolve problems by 27%. stc was always ready to perform better across the industry. Some parts of stc’s network are legacy and we are in the process of updating all our networks, to become “next-generation networks” so that stc can achieve its ambition of attaining the highest possible level of network automation everywhere. Yes, our network automation goals changed because once we have next-generation networks, we can do a lot of things much faster.

Pragmatic approach to cloud

On migrating to cloud technologies, Alfaraj confirmed the stc’s cloud technology advancement, as it started relatively early, with the group’s telco cloud in 2017. He explained that the maturity of hyper-scalers and telcos was different in the old days, yet stc’s cloud strategy and objectives changed during the journey. “The group decided that any core functionality should be in the cloud. And due to the readiness of the cloud version and as it made a financial impact, we immediately migrated to the cloud. From that perspective, we are not looking at saving every penny, as we consider the other benefits, such as injecting technologies, swiftly into the market, enhancing customer experience and digitalization”, Alfaraj emphasised.

“The latest figures, from November 2022, show that about 70% of the pure core telcos functions are already operated through clouds, through the packet core, packet gateways, the HLRs (Home Location Registers), the AAA’s as well as firewalls and BNGs (Broadband Network Gateways). The Majority of IT loads are on clouds, which is where we started, with an internal cloud cluster, as well as hyper-scalers in IT”, Alfaraj explicated.

“stc maintains its telco cloud and is adopting a multi-cloud strategy. We are working with Alibaba, Microsoft, Oracle, SAP, Amazon, and Google so that the cloud workloads will not only run on our clouds but also on hyper-scalers’ clouds. We are having partnerships with hyper-scalers, where both parties mutually benefit. We tend to widely reach to the developer community and develop agility and resiliency meanwhile, hyper-scalers are accessing proximity to consumers to complement closer edge services that they provide”, He stated.

Moving towards programmable networks

“Our ultimate aim is that, at the click of a button, a 5G mobile packet core, can be shifted in 10 minutes with all the associated automation from one hyper-scaler’s cloud to another, or from stc’s telco cloud. We will not be integrating data, instead, we will only be migrating it with automated activities. To be able to fulfil the high expectations of our customers, we prefer avoiding time spent when doing a manual integration, hence we will only migrate data as it all will be conducted through automated activities.” Alfaraj explained.

As the strategic focus on automation began about seven years ago, how does Alfaraj see stc after seven years, in 2030?

By then we might be far ahead of what we envision today because we are accelerating our implementation process. Having said that, in 2030 I see telcos being fully programmable with Autonomous Networks and API-based integrated marketplaces. We cannot think of 5G without automation, with its technological advantages of speed and latency. We are able to create the future mobile network for enterprises with 5G network slicing, without human hands-on. Customers can go to the telco’s marketplace, select where they want a virtual network, define the latency and bandwidth parameters, and start using the services. Our sales partners, using our API Marketplaces, can develop and sell products using our API-driven programmable network provisioned through digital channels in every domain.

Haithem M. Alfaraj, CTO, STC, is speaking at FutureNet MENA, 20 March, Dubai

Countering culture –  What has been the most difficult part of stc’s automation journey?

We have challenges such as digital-native disruptors, customers’ changing behaviours, and other competitors. The main answer to these challenges was the mindset of our people, the internal culture, and innovation. All are important factors for telcos in the continuously changing landscape. Innovation and automation were being deployed at many levels in different operational areas. In the consumer sector, for example, stc won multiple awards for its digital customer experiences, through its My stc app & Jawwy platform by which consumers have access to the operator’s range of services, and self-services. One of the biggest issues telcos and other vertical industries face regarding field engineers is the consistency and quality of their work. Standardising these activities can’t be done if digitalisation doesn’t lead to supporting the increasing demand for technologies. stc Group believes that augmented reality technologies can help standardise quality in the field and is running proofs of concept whereby engineers can receive everything from step-by-step instructions to schematics showing the location of gas pipes, electricity cables and many more, if they are trying to find a problem with a cable in the street, for instance. We are working hard in terms of education, training, onboarding people, hiring consultants to teach design, and helping us adopt digital-first and agile practices. This is not just to compete, but to become leaders of disruptive innovation ourselves. We are constantly working through proactive approaches to the markets’ changes to be the one brand creating disruptive innovation.

Strong focus on customer experience pays many dividends for dtac

In the next data-driven operations related blog DTAC’s CTO, Prathet Tankuranun, talks to Contributing Editor, Annie Turner about how smart can beat scale regarding profitability, through a focus on customer experience and the best use of all assets, including through Ericsson Managed Services.

Prathet Tankuranun is Chief Technology Officer (CTO) at Total Access Communication Public Company Limited (known as dtac), which is part of the Telenor group and Thailand’s third largest mobile operator. The communication service provider (CSP) has had an interesting and challenging evolution.

It started as a concession in 1989, renting or buying the use of spectrum from other operators before it began deploying its own network. Once those original spectrum contracts ran out, it was obliged to acquire new licenses to spectrum, which did not provide the ideal amount of spectrum in all areas of operation.

Four years ago, dtac realized it had network issues, although it had good network utilization and its key performance indicators (KPIs), such as dropped call rates, gave no cause for concern. Yet it had declining Net Promoter Scores (NPS) and received direct complaints from customers. Prathet says, “Given the limited megahertz we had then, we wondered what else we could do to improve as much as we could.”


Power of partnership

dtac took a strategic decision to partner Ericsson Managed Services which was charged with implementing customer-centric network operations from January 2020. Ericsson now manages dtac’s network operations across the country with the Ericsson Operations Engine – an AI-powered platform that supplies, maintains and updates all the tools the operations’ team needs. The blended managed services team – which comprises the former dtac team and Ericsson personnel – ultimately reports to Prathet, who works closely with Amitava Saha, Managed Services Chief Operations Officer at Ericsson Thailand.

The operator is responsible for the network’s strategic planning and retains ownership of its assets. So, as a first step to improving customer experience and getting maximum value from assets, Prathet says, “We allocated NPSs [net promoter scores] to specific sites, to see which is good and bad, and updated the scores daily. Previously, we looked at the scores quarterly or maybe monthly and the same with complaints. Now we look at the complaints every day too.”

The galling thing was, “We found out about issues from customers, not from all the super-duper systems we’d invested in,” Prathet says. To address the issues, “We started out from fault management, to see what alarms are in the systems and which equipment was [generating] false alarms, then fixing them.” He also wanted to identify network issues that might not trigger traditional alarms.

dtac scrutinized the performance KPIs for different network aspects. Prathet says, “They are sufficient to provide OK customer interaction and a good service but to take it up another notch, we have to look further.” He wanted to see beyond the network to what its customers experience by developing more and different insights to deduce what to fix and where.

“We started with a different set of data besides the alarms or whatever is coming from the OSS and what our systems are looking at,” he says. “We have the DNA, which are fantastic tools that have got all the [information about] what is happening in the network and what customers’ experiences are. Instead of defining KPIs based on the network part, we used KPIs based on the customers’ view.

“We coined a term ‘bad experience subscribers’ or ‘bad section customers’ and used it to measure how good or bad a particular site or segment is by coming from different angles. We’re also looking into different types of customers – prepaid and postpaid, and even within prepaid we have different types of customers with different behaviors or different likings.”


Roaming experience

For example, many of dtac’s customers are migrants from neighboring countries who come to work in Thailand. “They often like different kinds of applications, like different chat applications, than we Thais use, and we even look into roamers,” Prathet says. Roamers coming onto dtac’s network via a number that originated in another country might have a poor experience, “but you would not see it from the network point of view because it is like a drop in the ocean,” he explains.

“But if you look into different types or categorize customers into different buckets, then you know a migrant has this issue because their behavior is different. Maybe their network of origin had issues because the pipe linking to their home network is congested, which could not be seen from data at the corrective level. Our approach allows us to see the customer’s view and pinpoint the areas for improvement.”


WATCH ON-DEMAND. In this live & interactive panel visionary speakers from TDC NET, Ericsson and Omdia explore how data, streamlined processes & automation can transform data-driven operations.


Speed is not everything

dtac also avoided being preoccupied by its network’s speed, unlike many operators. Prathet says, “Speed is not the most important thing, given the investment we would need to have that fastest network and perhaps that money could be spent elsewhere, or differently, to achieve greater satisfaction.

“For most things you do on a mobile – browsing, watching Netflix, listening to music or podcasts, doing emails – 200Mbps is the sweet spot for 95 percent to 99 percent of that stuff on small screens. That’s why we’re focusing on experience, reliability and stability. For example, when you click ‘start’ on YouTube, you notice how long it takes for the moving screen to come up. Those are the things we’re focusing on, not ‘If I have the fastest download speed then I’m the best network’.

“We are very disciplined when it comes to investment in the network. We want to make sure that every single dollar is well spent, and to maximize those dollars.” In other words, throwing intelligence rather than money at the network to get the maximum return.

Another strength is dtac asks its engineers to go into the call centers and sit with the agents to hear from customer how they experience the operator’s services and where improvements are needed. dtac staff listen to customers’ complaints and comments, then dig down into what’s behind them. This is also a powerful way to see customers as individuals rather than statistics, and how they are personally affected.


Smart beats scale

The three years have been tough for the telecoms industry at large due to the pandemic, with many losing revenues, most obviously roaming, while investing in capacity. Yet as Prathet says, “Compared to the other players in the market, we are doing well for the amount we’ve spent and the returns on it. The kind of additional insights that we’re gathering from the customers enable us to utilize what we have to the maximum extent.”

Hence while Thailand’s biggest operator operates on a far larger scale, dtac is on a par profitably wise, and doing better than the second largest player: smarts can still trump scale, and automation is the key. dtac started out with simpler approaches like the robotic process automation (RPA) to replace some manual tasks at the operations level.

Then to drive awareness and adoption of new ways of working, in 2021 it launched a campaign inside the company that challenged everyone, not just tech employees, to create a single robotic process to help them in their work.

The results underlined the fact that innovation can come from anywhere in an organization. An administrator responsible for making payments, such as to utilities, and emailing suppliers, “took training on how to use robotics and created fantastic, simple robots to relieve her of manual tasks. She won the competition and a small bonus,” Prathet says


Energy efficiency

He and his team are working on how best to deploy AI. He notes, “We are so buried in our day-to-day work, with just enough time to carry out our daily tasks…but if you spend a little bit more time on improving your skills, then maybe in future, instead of spending eight or 10 hours on email you could spend six of your eight hours doing something more interesting. That is how we are improving skills at the employees’ level.”

dtac wants to apply AI to better energy efficiency: “We’re working on that as rising energy prices are a global phenomenon. We are using AI to learn about the utilization of estates, and where there are things we could turn off or reduce the power during certain periods of the day,” Prathet explains. These measures will be introduced shortly and run by the team, which will acquire the necessary new skills such as neuron network programming, Python and so on.“

He concludes, “All these steps are in good collaboration, working alongside Amitava Saha and Ericsson Managed Services. His team members work for me – it’s not like we have a customer-supplier kind of relationship; it’s a one-team relationship with everyone working towards the betterment of our network for our customers. That is about collaboration and leveraging global skills. I think those are the contributing factors that are that are a big part in this success.”


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Explore the Operations Data-driven transformation blog series

Blog#1: Data-driven operations: does it pay off? – Ericsson

Blog#2: TDC NET powers a world-beating network through managed services and AI


This article was originally published on the Ericsson website here on the 7th of December 2022.

TDC NET powers a world-beating network through managed services and AI

Michael Fränkle, Executive Vice President and CTO, TDC NET, talks to Contributing Editor, Annie Turner, as part of the Ericsson Data Driven Transformation series.

In October 2021, TDC NET outperformed operators around the world by delivering the best mobile experience in the world, based on Tutela’s Excellent Consistent Quality metric which rates networks on overall mobile experience. In our second data-driven blog post we explore how data-driven operations played a key role in helping TDC NET achieve its highest-ever network performance. We spoke to Michael Fränkle, Executive Vice President and CTO, TDC NET, about TDC NET’s operational and business changes, and ambitious plans for the future.

Michael Fränkle has held the role of Executive Vice President and CTO at TDC NET since November 2017. During this period the leading Danish communication service provider (CSP) has undergone some seismic changes. The most obvious of which was in June 2019 when the operator decided to split its business into two legally and operationally individual subsidiaries: TDC NET and Nuuday. The two companies began operating separately on the 1st of January 2022.

The idea behind this decoupling was to allow each subsidiary to excel in their respective areas. This has resulted in TDC NET focusing on the provision of digital infrastructure, especially fiber and 5G, to service providers on an open access basis. Whereas Nuuday is Denmark’s largest provider of connectivity, communication and entertainment services.

TDC NET’s desire to push the boundaries and unleash the power of 5G was the catalyst for the 2019 decision to expand their long-standing partnership with Ericsson, this time through a network performance-focused collaboration.

This kicked off a new chapter, with the partners agreeing to collaborate on three elements: a move to Ericsson Managed Services, the complete replacement of the RAN plane and an agreement to transform the core; meaning the mobile core plus parts of the fixed, wireline services.

We asked Fränkle: “How much is using Ericsson Managed Services a case of ‘just’ handing over responsibility?”

Fränkle smiles wryly and says: “It’s not that easy when you talk about national critical infrastructure and a NOC [network operations centre], which in Ericsson’s case is located in Bucharest, Romania. They have lots of security rules to respect and to comply with, but also there’s the cultural barrier – how we tackle things, especially when the heat is on and things reach a crunch point when we are running an incident.”

When the closer collaboration began, Fränkle explains, “We saw we were sitting in the same boat – our goals were the Ericsson team’s goals and the Ericsson team’s goals were ours and this has continued right up to today. In the beginning, for the managed service part you have to make some adjustments – to ramble, form, norm and storm – but it went fairly well, with a mutual understanding of the objectives.

“We rapidly gained a mutual understanding of our processes, our measurements, our monitoring procedures, and things like that. This was a critical task, and a critical part of our success was the ability to sit in the same boat without rocking it.”


Shared objectives

As a multi-access operator, TDC NET runs fiber, coax and copper broadband networks, which contain a lot of legacy solutions. The combination of 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G mobile networks also created extra complexity during the switch out process.

“The biggest driver of all [to improve network performance] is to manage that complexity and transform our operations from an incumbent operator, with had lots of manual interventions, into a more automated, resilient set-up which is competitive for customers,” Fränkle says.

Paradoxically, the two big inhibitors to deploying automation are the very complexity Fränkle is striving to tame and handling customers and their experience.

“Operations-wise, we are looking at the entire network plane as a single domain. This is how we run it because the customer doesn’t care if an incident is in the mobile or transport network or the IP core. It’s all the same to them.”

So where did TDC NET apply automation first?

“We started on the entire Ericsson Managed Services part [so] the radio and core networks, but we are expanding the automation, scoping it to our backbone and backhaul monitoring on the fixed line side. This is our vision,” Fränkle says.

More specifically, the operator started with the Ericsson Operations Engine, a component of its Managed Services, which processes massive data sets using AI and machine learning to provide a high-resolution image of the network.

“We looked at mobile, especially when we switched on 5G, but used it also for 4G and the other mobile technologies. Our desired end state is automation covering all technologies, [both] fixed and mobile.”


WATCH ON-DEMAND. In this live & interactive panel visionary speakers from TDC NET, Ericsson and Omdia explore how data, streamlined processes & automation can transform data-driven operations.

Network optimization

Fränkle and his team set about optimizing the network to reduce downtime and the number of network incidents. They also focused on implementing ways to minimize their impact on customers, for example, by making the mean time to repair as short as possible.

To achieve these objectives the team focused on good analytics, good monitoring and a good incident-management process.

“Automation is the only way to avoid human error. If you have an automated plane from network elements to the NOC [network operations center], it helps improve performance significantly.”

The most significant improvement so far is reflected in the key performance indicator (KPI): service impact. Service impact measures the ratio of hours of service to the number of incidents. The results so far are impressive: over the last four years incident reports have fallen 10 percent and are at the best level they’ve been at for 25 years; when the network was a far simpler proposition.

“Clearly we are on the right track, but we’re not finished yet,” Fränkle continues. “In the last four years, we have been rated as providing the best mobile network experience in the world, a rating that was measured by drive tests. From a device point of view, crowd-sourced measurement reports have also rated TDC NET as the best provider of mobile Android experience in the world.”

As TDC NET’s customers are service providers, mobile operators, with some exclusive arrangements on mobile and fixed, and some open access arrangements, this brings major benefits to the service providers and their customers.


Backhaul and the backbone

Now the plan is to achieve those accolades close for backhaul and in the backbone as TDC NET still has some systems that need to adhere to the Ericsson Operations Engine.

Fränkle says. “The biggest challenge here is ensuring the systems are in that one network domain, so that the different IT and monitoring systems can talk to each other, and we can adapt to needs and have an automated plane in these systems. Some are older, some newer, but we want to bring them all into the holistic view of the Ericsson Managed Services.”

“Using the Ericsson Operations Engine is a data-driven transformation journey for us. We know it has been a success story for other operators in other countries with different priorities and as a global partner, Ericsson can help us innovate. In the last years in our partnership, we can clearly see this.”

Automating backhaul and the backbone in the fixed infrastructure is something of a different kettle of fish to what has been achieved in the mobile network.

“We are learning different dimensions; this is where we meet the software world. Coming from a big hardware manufacturing company, Ericsson is learning with us how to integrate with the software, in fast cycles.

“The idea is not only to do upgrades every half year or so, but to do them in DevOps mode. We’re working hard to get there on the SA [standalone] – to play out the full game of scale-driven automation with a single man or woman [running the] NOC is the journey we are on. We have manual processes in place and that needs to be overcome in the months, not years.”

TDC NET Operations is still running some AXE systems from Ericsson from the 80s and 90s.

“The people who run them are retiring before the machines, which is big kudos to Ericsson,” Fränkle observes. “But power technologies have improved over the last 40 years, which is why I’m saying take them down as fast and aggressively as possible, but on the revenue side, we need to watch how we migrate these customers into a meaningful future with new, replacement products.

“This is where we need the core transformation to make sure that we can capture existing customers and revenue lines with new technologies. This migration is critical because if we lose them, we will harm our business.”


New services

Fränkle believes that the commercial model and the time-to-market for new services is critical: “I will give you an example; we had a Tour de France in Denmark over summer, and we a local TV production gave us very short notice to ensure they could backhaul the TV stream over the 5G network. We had hours not days – our team working with Ericsson’s. This technology enables it.

“The next thing is for us to find products, and revenue generation and monetization mechanism to capture good income from it. We have shown the technology works by slicing 5G and in the right configurations. The next step is to scale it and monetize this fantastic technology.”

He acknowledges enterprises don’t fully understand the potential of 5G yet, but says, “The appetite comes with a meal. We see this now with 5G and… I’m 100 percent sure we will have a success story as we did with previous generations of mobile. The difference is you’re also changing parts of the business model. It’s not only about bigger bandwidth and a new SIM card, but about slicing and serving local providers with high reliability networks so they can address groups other than consumers in a B2C model.”


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This article was originally published on the Ericsson website here on the 2nd of December 2022.

Data-driven Operations: does it pay off?

Ken Tan, CTO of Digital Nasional Berhad (DNB), talks to Contributing Editor, Annie Turner, as part of the Ericsson Data Driven Transformation series.

As the world is racing towards an all-connected era, powered by technologies like 5G, IoT and concepts like Industry 4.0, reliable, secure and robust connectivity are imperative. Telecom networks increasingly serve as the backbone for all digital society placing new demands on operations. In our blog post series, we will embark on 5 data-driven transformation journeys with customers and Ericsson experts to address some the tangible benefits of data-driven operations in action.

Nope, this is not going to be a biophysics blog post, but I like to think of telecom networks as a living organism that follows the natural tendency of things to get more complicated. The second law of thermodynamics states that the degree of disorder or randomness (entropy) of a closed system will never decrease. In the long run, nothing escapes this fundamental law of universe and networks aren’t the exemption. Like many other ’organisms’ in the telecom ecosystem, they need to constantly address the intensifying complexity of operations driven by the increasing volume of devices, multiple new technologies, and more diverse service requirements.

As the possibilities multiply unlocking new monetization opportunities across enterprise and consumer segments, the need for communication services providers (CSPs) to transform their operations is not even open to debate. To add people around legacy processes is not sufficient to deliver the needed volume and speed of change. A new look at data is the foundation, but CSPs are uncertain on how to go about this transformation spanning beyond data & automation into multiple other dimensions across organization, competence, processes and governance.


WATCH ON-DEMAND. In this live & interactive panel visionary speakers from TDC NET, Ericsson and Omdia explore how data, streamlined processes & automation can transform data-driven operations.


The recurrent dilemma: To outsource or not to outsource

The real challenge lies in how to get there. Experience shows that it can be tricky for long-established CSPs (and service partners) to strike a balance between the operational consistency of ongoing legacy business and developing a new mindset. Success demands a profound cultural shift within traditional organizations, requiring teams that are historically focused on precision to embrace speed and incremental development, underpinned by an agile mindset of fail fast and succeed faster.

For some, relying on a partner to operate and transform their network operations with guaranteed business outcomes is the most attractive option – considering current macro-economic trends with increasing inflation rates and rising energy prices – than doing it by themselves. When you engage in an outsourcing model predictability is high, both in terms of committed service levels and cost, over the next three to five years. Risk is also low, as an experienced partner delivers the transformation faster and carries the risk change as well as associated with initial investments. A solid partner invests in key technologies like cloud-native and artificial intelligence (AI), to stay relevant into the future while delivering today with a solid track record of field-validated results.


In data we trust…

The essence of the data-driven transformation of operations is the shift from the traditional network resource management model, based on a reactive incident-centric approach, into a new approach that revolves around turning data into predictions.

Model adoption, however, is, no guarantee of success. Being clear about the vision of the transformation and having tangible and measurable business outcomes are practically even more important.

Data-driven operations transformation main benefits:

  • Highest network performance. Network stability is the foundation of good user experience, which can translate to a 15 percent ARPU increase for frontrunner CSPs.
  • Lowest total cost of ownership (TCO). By optimizing the incident management in the NOC, data-driven operations are able to notably reduce the volume of work orders and site visits, focus the field force with surgical precision and resolve issues much faster from a remote location.
  • Best customer experience. Together with the improved performance contributes to a better quality overall experienced by the subscriber and is reflected by a notable reduction in customer complaints related to network or service quality.
  • Less energy consumption. Leverages AI and advanced data analytics to optimize energy consumption across network infrastructure for CSPs, while also reducing site visits and curbing CO2 emissions.
  • Highest security standards. With 5G increasingly turning mobile networks into a backbone of the digital society, telco-specialized security expertise is paramount for preventing, simplifying handling and accelerating remediation of incidents.


Figure 1: Quantitative benefits of the data-driven journey based on aggregated figures from 20 CPSs from Q1-2019 to Q4-2021


Field-measured data from 20 CSPs transformation journeys powered by Ericsson Operations Engine between Q1, 2019 and Q4,2022 clearly answers our initial question: “Data-driven operations: Does it pay off?” Yes, it does, and it has a significant impact on CSPs operations business outcomes.

From a network performance perspective, data-driven operations reduce network unavailability by 34 percent while decreasing customer complaints by 21 percent. On the network efficiency side, the transformation led to a significant 12 percent reduction of work orders (WO) and 24 percent less truck rolls per node which had an important impact on CO2 emissions.


Data-driven infrastructure delivers 5G to six national operators in six months

The chief technological officer of Digital Nasional Berhad (DNB) Ken Tan, and his team, worked with Ericsson to launch Malaysia’s 5G infrastructure – just nine months after DNB was set up!

DNB is a special-purpose vehicle company, owned by the Ministry of Finance Malaysia. It was established in March 2021 to drive the development and adoption of 5G services in the country, offering its 5G network on a wholesale basis to the six established telecom service providers.

Tan says the pandemic highlighted the importance of digital connectivity globally:

“In Malaysia we have a digital divide we need to bridge so that connectivity is accessible to all – it has become a basic need. DNB was set up to accelerate building that bridge. It is a great ambition.”

He continues, “5G will deliver the next step change not just for the mobile industry, but the whole country, to transform it into a digital economy riding on the Industrial Revolution 4.0. DNB is set up for that purpose with policies to ensure that 5G connectivity is affordable…to all and to make it a commodity in the market that should transform and accelerate innovation for society.”

Malaysia’s 5G services are perhaps the cheapest in the world, costing the same or less than 4G. The government estimates 5G will deliver MYR650 billion (about $139.845 billion or €140.356 billion) in additional gross domestic product (GDP) for the economy by 2030. With so much riding on DNB’s success, the tender process for selecting partners was stringent, with three key criteria regarding the technical, commercial and socio-economic benefits for the nation. Ericsson was found to be first in each category after scrutiny by an expert panel drawn from around the globe.


An ambitious approach

DNB’s approach was ambitious and unique – to provide 5G infrastructure by the end of 2021, although the tender was only concluded in July.

“Also, the multi-operator core network has to support up to six other service providers’ cores that could contain components from any vendor,” Tan points out. “This not proven anywhere in the world, especially for 5G which is so new.”

Given this extraordinarily tight timeline, “I thought the managed services offered by Ericsson are great, because rather than DNB build up its own operations teams to manage the network it built, we can leverage the managed service team from Ericsson, and that global scale of expertise that Ericsson has, to help us to run the network in the shortest time frame it could be ramped up,” Tan says.

He adds, “We’ve introduced a lot of new technologies to make the network as efficient as possible, adopting the principles of an autonomous network and zero touch. When the managed service requirements came in during the tender, all of these things were incorporated.”

That determination to embrace autonomy, enabled by AI including machine learning, also allows DNB to introduce new skill sets to the nation: “When we introduce new AI and machine learning technologies, we need fewer people to run the network. This is not a bad thing because then we help transform those with a low skill set into highly skilled operations teams – including their income. Instead of people physically going out [to fix or install things], we turn them to programming applications or software.”


Spectacular results

DNB built the first 5G site on 10 October 2021, then the live production connected to six of the operators’ 4G networks on 10 November, followed by a soft launch with one of the operators in December.

“In that sort of timeframe, it had to be zero touch: the team was able to build up the NOC/SOC, not just the tools, but set up the whole process, escalation procedures and the operations within that really, really strict timeline. It gives us visibility of how the NOC is run, any issues and how to react. It’s a managed production network that we’re not running blind,” Tan explains.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of being data driven in this regard. “With data comes insights which mean you know what’s happening inside the network. Having those insights is a cycle: you apply remedies to ensure things are improved, then add more data to see that the improvements you make pay off, or if not, we can take the necessary action. We monitor growth into a seamless cycle, continuously driven.”

This is particularly important and no small undertaking as DNB is both a greenfield and brownfield operation. The new 5G infrastructure has to interoperate with the core of other operators’ networks, but Tan says that this complexity was embraced on day one, led by the Ericsson Managed Services team, which understood the challenge.

Tan observes, “Everyone operates [networks] on the grounds that you’re ‘innocent’ until proven ‘guilty’ [that is, fault is attributed based on evidence] but here in this set-up, you’re guilty until you prove your innocence.” This means the whole team needs to be proactive, always on the ball to be ahead of the game and the curve; to manage and capture issues before they become a problem for the mobile operators in the market. Prevention is always better than treatment.

“That’s the mindset and that’s how the team went about building the tools and how it uses the technologies like data and machine learning to automate all the processes and ensure they have visibility of how to prevent issues.” It has also delivered spectacular results: DNB started with 500 sites in November 2021 and had about 320,000 alarms per day. By August 2022, with the same size team, the alarms had reduced to 1,200 per day with over 2,000 sites live.


The operations brain

At the heart of DNB’s operations is the – a central platform which contains all the tools the teams need. It applies processes to data applications and manages how they operate and run the networks. The tools are managed centrally, dealing, for example, with software upgrades and swapping out bugs, relieving engineers of that responsibility: they simply log into the platform to access the tools.

Tan calls the Ericsson Operations Engine “the brain that allows people to work and program”. With those tools in place, people can use [the engine] to introduce the machine learning data, the value add and manage the network so that it is becoming a programmable network, run by software. Without these capabilities, we’d have to revert to old ways of running networks. Now you can centralize all of it with the NOC/SOC in one place.

The manual processes of logging into different components and network elements in the systems are gone. The data logs process and analyze data. Tan says, “When you multiply that by the number of sites and pieces of equipment, and especially equipment that is not within your control, you really have to automate the process. Then all information can be provided in real time for analysis, and you get that sort of capability [whereby] the team can react in close to real time, rather than days and days later, to apply the treatment. That sort of transformation is how to prove your ‘innocence’ from day one.”


Complex relationships

“DNB provides radio-as-a-service to six operators and when you get that service to them, they’re all part of one team, but now you’ve got another entity – Ericsson Managed Services – running the radio network for you and they need to gain the trust of their counterparts in each of these operators. Trust is not won through ‘Oh, here’s the data’; it’s more about providing self-serving capabilities to those operators and that’s what the Managed Services team have to do so they are part of the team.”

He elaborates, “It’s more than just providing data, it’s making those six operators part of the process including the escalation process, part of the day-to-day running of the analysis, being integrated into one team. The complexity comes once you integrate six other, different teams, but somehow this managed service team is able to manage all these things in parallel.”


Caring for your customers’ customers

Tan believes the most critical part of his job is enabling his operator customers to provide the best and most affordable 5G service to their customers. He comments, “If you have no issues, everything’s working fine, and the six mobile operators don’t complain, and if we can manage issues all the way to the end customers seamlessly, that’s the ultimate goal. We’re going to continuously upgrade the networks to support all the new features and capabilities for 5G and all the other use cases, plus the complexity that will come in.

He concludes, “Hence automations will continuously learn and improve to make sure we free up the people to do the high end, high value sorts of process and get jobs right…avoiding repetitive, mundane jobs. If people are engaged, they love what they’re doing, it’s a repetitive cycle, trying to find out how to keep improving and do more and more.“

To sum up, Tan says: “To me, that’s a win for all!”


Interviewed CSP: Ken Tan, Chief Technology Officer, DNB

Ken Tan has more than 20 years of work experience in the telecommunications industry and has successfully delivered on network and IT transformation programs. He was a key member of the Senior Leadership team that deployed the world’s first 5G Fixed Wireless Access Network and Australia’s Mobile Speed Leadership. His most recent role was Head/VP of Digital Networks with Singtel Optus. Leaders of DNB (Digital Nasional Berhad)



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This article was originally published on the Ericsson website here on the 22nd of November 2022.