FutureNet MENA Keynote Speaker Interview: Khalid Murshed, CTIO, e& UAE

In the lead-up to FutureNet Middle East & North Africa, Khalid Murshed, CTIO, e& UAE, talks to FutureNet about what to expect from his keynote presentation at the event, and much more.

 

You are giving a Keynote presentation at FutureNet MENA on 14thMay, titled Future Unleashed: Navigating 5G-Advanced, Multi-Cloud and AI Frontiers. Can you give our readers a sense of what to expect from your presentation?

I’m honored to be delivering the keynote presentation at FutureNet MENA on May 14th. During my keynote, I’ll delve into several pivotal aspects shaping the future of telecommunications.

Firstly, I’ll provide an overview of our current 5G network status, highlighting our achievement in positioning the UAE as the fastest Mobile broadband nation worldwide, as validated by the Ookla Speedtest index. I’ll elaborate on the diverse monetization use cases of 5G and how we’re leveraging this technology beyond mere connectivity to meet the evolving needs of businesses (B2B).

Additionally, I’ll unveil our journey towards 5G-Advanced, shedding light on the innovative use cases it enables. Our commitment to cloud technology will also take center stage as I showcase our multi-cloud transformation journey, demonstrating how we’re transitioning our network and IT workload towards a cloud-native architecture.

Furthermore, I’ll provide insights into our AI-First transformation journey, illustrating the strides we’re making in AI innovation within the UAE. Through real-world examples and case studies, I’ll highlight the transformative potential of AI across various facets of our operations.

Overall, attendees can expect a comprehensive exploration of how we’re navigating the frontiers of 5G-Advanced, multi-cloud, and AI, ultimately driving innovation and shaping the future of telecommunications in the region.

 

There is a lot of debate about the evolution of the Telco ecosystem, how do you think ecosystems can drive growth in future for telcos and how will telcos fit into this changing landscape?

In the evolving landscape of the telecommunications industry, ecosystems play a pivotal role in driving growth and innovation. Telcos, as key players within these ecosystems, are uniquely positioned to leverage collaborative partnerships to thrive in the future. Here’s how ecosystems can drive growth for telcos and how they fit into this changing landscape:

  1. Diversification of Services: Telcos can expand beyond traditional connectivity services by participating in broader ecosystems. By collaborating with technology providers, content creators, and service platforms, telcos can offer value-added services such as content streaming, IoT solutions, and cloud services, thereby diversifying their revenue streams and driving growth. This is why e& has evolved from being a Telco to a Techco to diversify its portfolio of services and products.
  2. Enhanced Customer Experience: Ecosystem partnerships enable telcos to deliver more personalized and seamless customer experiences. By integrating with various service providers and aggregating offerings, telcos can provide customers with bundled solutions tailored to their needs, leading to increased customer satisfaction and loyalty.We have adopted an AI-First approach to enhance and personalize customer services. By leveraging artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies, e& can analyze vast amounts of data to understand customer preferences and behavior, enabling us to deliver more personalized and seamless experiences across all touchpoints.
  3. Innovation and Differentiation: Telcos can harness the collective expertise and resources within ecosystems to drive innovation and differentiation. By collaborating with startups, research institutions, and other ecosystem partners, telcos can co-create innovative solutions and stay ahead of competitors in rapidly evolving markets.We have partnered with and acquired several startups to enhance our portfolio of services. These collaborations allow e& to access cutting-edge technologies and innovative solutions developed by startups, enabling us to differentiate ourselves in the market and stay ahead of the competition.
  4. Access to New Markets: Ecosystem partnerships provide telcos with access to new markets and customer segments. By joining forces with partners operating in adjacent industries or emerging markets, telcos can expand their reach and tap into previously untapped revenue opportunities, driving growth in both existing and new markets.This is why we have developed customized 5G/IoT/Security and cloud use cases in the beyond connectivity era. By tailoring our offerings to specific market needs and partnering with industry leaders in adjacent sectors, e& can penetrate new markets and customer segments, unlocking new revenue opportunities and driving growth.
  5. Adaptation to Industry Trends: In a rapidly changing industry landscape, ecosystems enable telcos to adapt to evolving trends and technologies more effectively. By participating in ecosystem collaborations, telcos can access resources and expertise to navigate challenges such as digital transformation, regulatory changes, and shifts in consumer behavior, ensuring their continued relevance and competitiveness.

Overall, ecosystems serve as catalysts for growth and innovation in the telco industry, empowering telcos to stay agile, relevant, and competitive in an increasingly interconnected world. By embracing collaborative partnerships and leveraging collective strengths, telcos can position themselves for sustained success in the future.

 

You recently launched an excellent white paper, Unleashing the Power of AI. Can you share some insight into how e& UAE is shaping the future of AI in telecommunications and beyond?

We are thrilled to introduce our latest whitepaper, titled “Unleashing the Power of AI: How e& UAE is Shaping the Future of AI in Telecommunications and Beyond.” This comprehensive document represents the culmination of extensive research, innovative strategies, and dedicated efforts, encapsulating our AI journey and e& UAE’s transformative endeavors.

Our whitepaper offers an in-depth perspective into the heart of our AI journey, showcasing the remarkable potential of emerging technologies and the strategic approaches we are implementing. It provides insights into how we are integrating AI and GenAI into our operations, with a particular focus on revolutionizing the telecommunications sector and contributing to the nation’s digital future.

By unveiling our frameworks for Machine Learning and GenAI systems, alongside strategies championed by our teams for seamlessly applying powerful ML and LLMs, we aim to demystify the transformative power of AI. The whitepaper illuminates how AI is reshaping our operations, from enhancing customer experiences to optimizing operations and reducing costs.

I firmly believe that AI is a cornerstone in ensuring a technologically advanced, secure, and sustainable future, with telecommunications serving as the vital infrastructure to deliver on its promise. This whitepaper not only celebrates the achievements of the e& UAE team but also underscores e& group’s conviction that through collaboration, we can harness the immense potential of AI to redefine connectivity and foster opportunity for all.

Furthermore, the document underscores our commitment to responsible AI deployment, emphasizing fairness, transparency, and ethical practices in alignment with the UAE’s visionary goal of becoming a global AI leader by 2031.

For more details on our AI journey, you can access our whitepaper at:

https://www.eand.com/en/news/eand-unveils-blueprint-for-ai-app.html

 

Finally, I would like to ask you about 5G Advanced. What new service opportunities do you envisage with 5G Advanced and how do you expect to monetise the network?

5G Advanced is poised to revolutionize connectivity with its enhanced capabilities, offering a plethora of new service opportunities across various sectors including consumer, IoT, and enterprise. Here’s an overview of the potential opportunities and monetization strategies:

Service Opportunities:

  • Consumer: With 5G-Advanced, consumers can expect ultra-high-definition video streaming, real-time interactive gaming, and immersive augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) experiences, all made possible by higher speeds and lower latency.
  • IoT: The Internet of Things will thrive with 5G-Advanced, enabling massive machine-type communications and supporting a vast number of connected devices with improved energy efficiency and lower costs, facilitated by technologies like eRedcap and Passive-IoT (P-IoT).
  • Enterprise: Businesses stand to benefit from 5G-Advanced applications such as remote control of machinery, smart logistics, and advanced analytics, transforming operations and opening up new revenue streams, thanks to features like low latency, precise positioning, and higher speeds.

Monetization Strategies:

  • Network-as-a-Service (NaaS): Offering tailored network capabilities to businesses on a subscription basis allows them to pay for exactly what they need when they need it, providing flexibility and cost-effectiveness.
  • API Monetization: By creating and selling APIs that enable third-party developers to build applications leveraging the 5G network, revenue can be generated based on their usage, tapping into the burgeoning ecosystem of app developers.
  • Enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB): Providing superior broadband services leveraging 5G-Advanced’s higher data rates and lower latency can be monetized through premium service offerings, catering to users with demands for high-performance connectivity.

These strategies position us to capitalize on the vast potential of 5G-Advanced, ensuring that we not only deliver cutting-edge services but also create sustainable revenue streams in the evolving telecommunications landscape.

 

For more details on our journey with 5G-Advanced, you can access our latest whitepaper at:

https://www.eand.com/en/news/3-jan-2024-etisalat-by-eand-launches-white-paper.html

‘So what’ and disaggregation spell success in Coordination Age

BT Group’s Gabriela Styf Sjöman talks to Contributing Editor Annie Turner about her approach to harnessing technology and why network readiness is all. 

Gabriela Styf Sjöman joined BT Group as Managing Director, Research and Networks Strategy, in June 2023. Previously she was Group Chief Strategy Officer at Nokia and has held senior roles at Telia, TIM and Ericsson as well as sitting on various boards as a non-executive director.

How does Styf Sjöman sum up her role? “To create an awareness and influence about the opportunities of new technology,” but, she stresses, always concentrating on the “So what?”. In other words, what technology can do, not for its own sake.

She explains, “It’s always technology that has driven new innovation…for instance, a big shift was the separation between consumer service and network that came through IP. Then we were all taken by surprise to have all these services going over the top. We didn’t ask ourselves, ‘So what?’ about IP.”

Styf Sjöman firmly believes that, “If we really want to understand that ‘So what?’ in society and [for] societal growth, economic growth, then we need to have that multi-disciplinary understanding”. Her education and career are multi-disciplinary.  She originally studied power engineering before going into telecoms, with her first job at Ericsson. Among other things, she has studied law and political science, and holds both an MBA and MA in international affairs with a specialism in cybersecurity.

Multi-disciplinary doesn’t mean lacking clarity: “I’ve led R&D before, overseen a lot of innovation. I always say, you are either looking to make money or save it. There’s nothing in between. You must be able to explain your value proposition to your customer,” she says.

The next big step

She sees disaggregation as the next big network evolution. “Cloudification of the network is not only for optimisation and to reach hyperscale economics. Disaggregation is opening value chains. That’s why we see new, different players coming into connectivity and what the full stack of an integrated telco used to offer. We have new players on services, on the platform level and in infrastructure – netcos and towercos,” Styf Sjöman says.

She adds, “APIs are a big ‘So what?’ – abstracting network capabilities and opening them to developers and customers – and becoming AI-driven for self-optimisation, etc. All of this is transforming the network to become a platform that enables product innovation on top of it and we need to treat it as such.

“We should be asking ourselves, what does this all mean for the role of the network? What does the network become? In my eyes, the network becomes a production environment – a programmable network that enables the fast development, introduction and operation of new products, either for myself or the ecosystem. I open up my network to monetise the ecosystem and unleash new product innovation.”

Too slow, too expensive

Styf Sjöman says she only understood why telcos have so few products after she went to work for one. She discovered it cost perhaps tens of millions of pounds and took two years to ready the network and associated IT for one new product and its launch. She says, “Now we’re creating all these disaggregated, more agile, faster networks. The networks must serve product innovation, allowing me to develop and introduce even remove applications at a much faster pace to create that long tail of applications.”

She describes the industry as coming to the end of the Information Age, in which people and things are connected to share information, and the beginning of the Coordination Age. Here “collaboration and coordination are what matters, so everything we connect is coordinated: AI, machine learning and analytics are for actionability.”

Characteristically she asks, “What’s the role of the telco?”. Clearly, connectivity is the base for it all, but “what are the new capabilities I need? What are those business models?”.

She notes the shortcomings of received wisdom. For instance, while everybody talks about the need for software skills, Styf Sjöman thinks software architecture is the critical issue. She notes, “Increasingly we buy everything off the shelf but as we move towards programmable networks, parts of the network will be unique to specific telcos. We will need our own system integration and development capabilities.

“It’s not only developing a few lines of code…You need to know how to architect a product, how to develop and maintain it, and to know how to do the overall product management. It’s about new functional skills. This is usually described as the journey from telco to techco.”

An eye on the horizon

Then there’s the importance of keeping an eye on the horizon. For example, BT Research is working to understand the impact quantum computing will have on quantum networks. Styf Sjöman states, “A quantum computer will be able to decrypt any cryptography in milliseconds and it will come. Our research has been around quantum secure communications, such as quantum key distribution.”

The idea is to understand how the nature of quantum can also be used to protect different type of keys and cryptography. BT (working with Toshiba) has scored a world first in quantum secure communications, having launched a trial commercial quantum secured metro network in London. EY was the first customer to join the network, followed by HSBC which has become the first bank to pioneer quantum protection for AI-powered foreign exchange trading, using the network.

No wonder Styf Sjöman thinks we’ve only glimpsed the tip of the iceberg regarding use cases in the imminent Coordination Age. They will be powered by automation, from autonomous manufacturing to using drones for public safety, in a remote health care and much more. Their common denominator is that they will require an intent-based network.

Intent runs deep on automation and AI

She defines this as a network that is service- and device-aware that is on-demand with seamless access regardless of access technology. “So everything is around very deep AI that scales in [step] with self-optimised networks,” Styf Sjöman explains. “There will be an absolutely massive shift in how we operate the networks and assurance in future. We will also require skills, process redesign and automation of those processes.”

She says at the moment, telcos are using AI within domains and on a component level, rather than end to end. She emphasises that in future, “If the network is ‘going to serve’, there will not be ‘a killer service’, but thousands and thousands of applications. Some will continue over the top, others will be net-compute applications.”

They will require a much higher level of interdependency between the consumers’ cloud-native applications and the network application. This means seamless optimisation and management from the core network all the way to the radio. Furthermore, the thousands of net-compute apps will require network slices.

Styf Sjöman asks, “How are you going to get economics out of that? You need an AI-driven network that understands the service and the device to decide which is the optimal performance to deliver the best customer experience. So where do I put my workloads? Which infrastructure do I use to deliver that performance and the best economics, sustainability and energy consumption? That’s that level of AI you need.”

How’s it going?

How much of this is theory and how much actual? “We’re progressing a lot at BT, such as our global fabric, the product that we launched for BT Business [see this recent interview with CTO of BT Business, Colin Bannon]. It is like the first generation of Network-as-a-Service [NaaS]. It allows BT’s customers to request connectivity like Ethernet links and broadband access on-demand, leveraging the benefits of virtualisation to instantiate and activate network functions on-demand.

“The next step is AI-driven self-optimisation for an intent-based network. Nobody has it yet but that must be the objective and disaggregation is key.”

Styf Sjöman says making the most of those opportunities will demand far more concentration on product innovation: “We often introduce innovative network technology, but mostly use it to sell the very same products. This needs to change. We need more focus on exploring how we monetise the innovation to find new business models, in collaboration with our customers and partners.”

She notes, “Customers don’t wake up and say, ‘I want a private network’ or ‘a 5G slice’. They’re trying to solve for an outcome, to optimise their business. They are thinking of B2B2X business. They don’t only want to use our network for their digitalisation but also to build on top of our networks to offer products to their customers.”

Integration and differentiation

She concludes, “We have only seen the tip of the iceberg of the digital services that will underpin societal and economic growth in the UK. Many of these services will remain over-the-top and be network agnostic. But there will be a set of services that are so critical that they will require the best a carrier grade network has to offer in terms of, for instance, security, speed, latency and jitter – and delivered as a cloud delivery model.

“To be integral as an enabler in the Coordination Age value chain, the network must be intent-driven, self-optimised, disaggregated, and open. And this is exactly what our refreshed BT network vision is about.”

NaaS offers customers unprecedented control in a deglobalised world

Colin Bannon, CTO of BT Business, talks to Annie Turner about the journey to commercialise NaaS, from redefining resilience and controlling latency through dual-homing, to data’s sovereignty in motion

Colin Bannon has been CTO of BT Business for eight years. He describes BT’s emerging global fabric in colourful terms, providing a clear picture of how cloud providers and innovative network operators complement each other. Or perhaps how telcos can augment cloud services is more accurate.

Bannon says, “This is as big as moving from analogue to digital…reflected in skills, culture, commercials, economic models, service and use cases for our customers to stay relevant for the future. Managing the transformation of the old to the new. And the last bit, and perhaps sometimes the least important, is the technology itself.”

Even so, “We’re building like fury right now,” he says. “Think of it on two layers. One is the physical infrastructure, the trucks and the equipment and the hardware. The racking and powering up and testing all the hardware. That’s going on geographically around the world right now. There will be more and more physical sites as the year goes on, in 2024 and 2025,” he states.

“We’re laying successive products on top of each node; additional software releases with new functionality and new products. We will do subsequent software releases…There is no end to this. We continue to innovate. There’ll be new features dropped in because now it’s like cloud.”

Could he have imagined this, say 10 years ago? “No. If you look at the innovation and the speed that the hyperscalers are doing on their platforms, I think it’s incumbent on the telcos to have equal ambition, and make sure that we are innovating equally to stay relevant to our customers’ needs,” he replies.

From coconut to avocado

At FutureNet World Colin is speaking on the panel: Network as a Service and accelerating the path to commercialisation

A big change is that for years, data centres were the hub. Now they are a spoke. Formerly most corporate traffic was scrubbed at a data centre before it was allowed onto the internet. Bannon says, “You’d trombone all your traffic. People spent a lot of money building big racks of firewalls and load balancers where they’d have their apps etc.”

Now customers’ traffic needs a specific reason to go to data centres, otherwise it goes straight to cloud or SaaS. Bannon explains, “The concept of perimeters has changed. The network was like a coconut – hard on the outside, but all soft and watery inside. Once you got through that data centre and the firewalls, it was a trusted network internally.

“Now we’re dealing with networks that are more like an avocado, with less defined perimeters – people working from home, on their mobile, coming in through an ISP or whatever – but the applications themselves and the concept of zero trust have a hard core, like the stone in the avocado.”

Physicality matters

The shift from ‘coconut’ to ‘avocado’ is a massive change which opens up new opportunities. Although we talk about ‘cloud’, networks rely on physical interconnection points – an IPX, carrier hotel or carrier neutral facility.

Bannon says, “There are business opportunities in being resilient and super-efficient.” He wryly points out that backhoes on plant machinery are one of telcos’ biggest problems, as someone is putting one through a fibre cable somewhere almost every moment of the day. BT designed its network as a mesh, so there are always multiple options at the optical layer if a link fails.

Somewhat ironically, automation can also destroy resilience. “Most of the big outages in the last year have been caused human error then automation magnified the blast radius, pushing something that was wrong to every box,” he says. In one instance, this included disabling the code reader on the door to a data centre that had to be accessed to fix the issue.

Bannon says, “That’s why an outage can take 12 hours now, because even if they know what the problem is, they don’t have that remediation.” BT’s way of avoiding such disasters is thinking “about the old school techniques of diversity, not just resilience. Failures in cloud availability regions are an excellent case in point.”

Dual-homing – more than twice as good

Say a company with a data centre in Japan send its workloads to, say, a carrier-neutral facility in Korea where a hyperscaler has an exposed network edge. In the event of failure, which could be for a multitude of reasons, common practice is to default to the next nearest route.

To access the application running in Korea, traffic is sent back to Japan via an undersea cable then onto Singapore via another such cable. Once the application has been accessed, the data needs to travel the reverse journey because, as Bannon points out, “Customers do not pay cloud providers to have an image of their application in every availability zone, they tend to just put one in a single region and think that’s resilient”.

The return journey could result in latency of between 200 to 250 milliseconds (ms) when already it’s likely that the customer’s experience has degraded, for example, with screens timing out.

Bannon states, “The way to fix it has to be additional diversity – and what we’re spending our CapEx on. Being dual homed, via different providers such as Equinix and Digital Realty, into that hyperscaler’s data centre in Korea. We’re doing this for Microsoft, AWS and Google, etcso rerouting is just a street across town with a 5ms failover, not going through the sea four times. That means you have resilience and performance.

“This greater robustness and differentiation brings real quality of experience that the cloud providers can’t fix themselves. We’re identifying needs in the market and solving for them as only service providers can. That’s just one example.”

Bannon says, “This is a differentiating factor within our network and part of our NaaS offer…Cloud providers have multiple options for resilience, shared or dedicated, and we’re making sure that we build and expose them digitally to our customers, making it really easy – a key click away – to order and change, to have visibility and control. That is significantly different to the way we do business today. And to be fair, most service providers have yet to go through that digital journey.”

Injecting intent for NaaS

That’s not all. Bannon continues, “We run our network on a modern segment around a core that has an abstracted path computation engine. The network is centrally controlled.” Previously routes were calculated, hop by hop with each hop across the core inside a ‘black box’ over which customers had no control. Nor had the black boxes any knowledge of the packets, they just moved them efficiently.

“Now, the central control…opens up fine-grained, micro segmentation and control,” Bannon says, giving BT total control and embedding business intent throughout the journey.

Why is this important? If a firm in Germany sends sovereign data to a data centre that data cannot legally leave that country. “But that backhoe goes through the fibre and the SD-WAN reroutes or reconverges, maybe peering through its partners via Russia then back into Germany. That’s not a great look today,” he says, as bad actors might well decrypt and steal or tamper with data.

SD-WANs are at the mercy of the ISP underneath and the internet was designed to withstand nuclear war. Hence “the paradox is that the internet is geographically ignorant. It is inherently viral in how it reroutes around a failure but we don’t have much determinism in how it reroutes,” Bannon observes.

Regulators are increasingly interested in what happens to data in motion, not only the sovereignty of data at rest. Bannon says, “We’re solving for being able to inject a business intent, such as to geofence this data within a country, as our service. That’s just one example of business intent.

“I don’t know a fraction of the business intents that will be thought up over the next 10 years. Having a platform that is programmable will make it relevant for future challenges. We need to manage the paradox of something that is inherently uncontrollable in a world of deglobalisation.”

Power to the port

BT Business is moving away from multiple racks with multiple stacks for each network to running multiple cores on a single stack. This helps maximise return on capital for shareholders and customers, Bannon explains. For example, a multi-service core and a multi-service edge is far more energy efficient, but also BT abstracts the concept of the port to the protocol and stack at the edge.

This allows customers to switch between services without the operational palaver of ceasing one service and provisioning another, involving engineers visiting sites, hardware changes, BSS and OSS. Instead, “The port retains the data, information and relationship with the customer to the lifetime of that contract. By abstracting the protocol and creating a software-defined edge, we can spin up whatever protocol they want to apply to that port or multiple ones,” Bannon says.

“All of a sudden, it’s a plugin that’s available to all the platforms. It cuts down on development, time, capex, code writing and testing. And when I talked about culture, this is genuinely a step change across the board.”

Aligning strategy, operations and infrastructure is the secret of success

Tony Geheran, COO at TELUS, tells Annie Turner how the company is making innovative use of its assets in new domains, hitting its stride with GenAI and how it all started with a desire to improve the customers experience

Tony Geheran became Chief Operations Officer at global technology company, TELUS, in 2021, two decades after he joined the operator, moving from Cable & Wireless in Dublin, Ireland, to Vancouver, British Columbia. He has served in various senior roles, from chief customer officer to overseeing business transformation.

In such testing times for telecoms, what are Geheran’s biggest priorities? “First, are our services and technology creating value for our customers and opportunities for growth? Second, growth is not always easy to achieve, particularly in this economic climate… so how can we leverage technology to help give us operating margins that satisfy external stakeholders?

“Opportunities arise from pervasive 5G and our large, rapidly- growing fibre broadband footprint,” he says. TELUS’ approach to digitisation was based on three criteria: how to make customers’ lives easier; how best to enable the team; and how to simplify doing business with TELUS. Geheran describes this as, “Remodelling the business to be low touch, high efficiency and highly successful transactionally”.

Business within a business

He explains, “One of the catalysts for us to be able to do that more effectively was deciding to overbuild our copper infrastructure with fibre – a programme that really was ‘a business within the business’…This is a multi-year, multi-billion dollar build, so we didn’t want to wait until we could address the mass market, which is the traditional telco model of rolling out technology.”

Overall within its footprint, TELUS is beyond 70% penetration with its fibre overbuild, connecting more than three million homes and businesses across a geographically diverse, 2 million square kilometres.

“We had all the attributes in place, from the initial design engineering and the physical construction, to our installation and repair technicians installing the network at premises, to marketing and sales as we built. [We treated] every town, every city as a distinct project; every neighbourhood as an opportunity to market and sell directly…taking advantage of our presence to make people aware of the technology we’re bringing and sell them the technology and its benefits while we’re there,” Geheran says.

This has been hugely successful. “We designed the business of the future for us as a telco around putting a superhighway of fibre into the home and the possible services you can layer on top.” For example, TELUS is the biggest provider of home security systems and services in Canada. Geheran thinks the next big opportunity will be in managing smart home applications because currently they are collections of disparate, discrete solutions.

Different takes on network monetisation

This approach to infrastructure build is giving rise to other, diverse sources of revenue that are really sweating its assets. First, TELUS is carrying out what Geheran describes as “urban mining”, that is, reclaiming and recycling thousands of kilometres of copper cable in the local loop. This is “the greenest copper on the market,” he says, because it is not mined in the traditional way. Proceeds from the recycled metal are funding the reclamation as well as future upgrades to the fibre.

Second, is repurposing central office buildings (telephone exchanges) and their sites which are in the heart of every town, city and province where TELUS operates. The offices are, or will become, largely redundant as the copper loop disappears and will be redeveloped by TELUS with partners to provide affordable housing. The proposition is that property developers share the building costs and their expertise, and 18 months to two years after the projects are completed, TELUS “has the right of first refusal; we buy them out, then we own the asset in its entirety,” Geheran says.

Another revenue stream arising from existing assets was announced last June. TELUS is partnering with Australian electric vehicle (EV) charging company, JOLT, to install stations across Canada, helping drive the adoption of EVs and support the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. And to add to its green credentials, TELUS operates solar and wind farms in Alberta which offsets its carbon footprint where it does not have access to those technologies. It aims to be carbon neutral by 2025.

Smart services at the edge

Thirdly, as Geheran notes, “The old central offices are still an edge point for our fibre connections and for our 5G network – very low latency runs into the heart of the community and we see that it’s going to be a significant benefit.” In particular, TELUS is thinking about smart city applications such as autonomous vehicles and smart traffic sensors and management.

He says, “How the Internet of Things and smart cities transform the way we interact with our communities [presents] a huge opportunity”. It is also another area in which AI will have a foundational role.

Leveraging AI

TELUS was an early and innovative adopter of AI, as this interview from 2021 with its long-serving former CTO Ibrahim Gedeon illustrates. Geheran states, “The traditional sort of supervised AI – standard machine learning and robotic process automation – provided point solutions for a part of a repetitive process that stayed the same. Supervised AI is great for things that are done over and over – as long as you’re managing and understanding when changes might occur, which requires code. It works fine and we’ll continue to use it.”

However, as he says, “Generative AI is taking knowledge sources, historical data, and learning the nuances of what is happening in the process, or in the network, with each iteration. This is important amid many thousands of network alarms, when it seems a particular fault recurs although it might have different root causes.”

According to Geheran, “GenAI holds the promise of better diagnostics and shorter time to fix because of it being able to sift and interpret the vast amounts of data…there are many internal applications we’re focused on with AI capabilities.”

For instance, GenAI has the potential to make the network greener, such as powering down elements when they are idling. but stresses, “The critical thing is that bringing them back up can be a point of failure so you need reliability assurance to do that without creating any issues.”

Looking after the humans

Beyond the technical advantages, TELUS is building trust with its customers and team members as a leader in responsible AI, an extension of the company’s long-standing commitment to social purpose.

Geheran says,We’re very conscious that as we automate and bring massive machine learning to bear, we need to look at what the impact is on the business and the people within the business. We continually foster a culture of learning and experimentation, encouraging team members to be more curious and open to change and experiment with new tools and technology.”

TELUS set up a fast track Digital Developer programme in conjunction with a Canadian tech education company to offer employees whose jobs were being automated a new career path and to gain the skills the operator needs. Geheran says, “The first cohort graduated last year with an industry-recognised qualification and over 30 graduates were hired as junior developers”.

Taming the data dragon

Despite telcos talking about gaining insights from Big Data for a decade or more, it’s still slow going. Geheran explains, “We’ve set up a team that [brings the data together] now, so our data is an aggregate of all the data sources. We cleanse it to make it into a usable data repository that is accessible within the organisation so that the business can gain better insights from the transactional data that’s generated.”

He continues, “I would say we’re still at maybe a two instead of an eight out of 10, in terms of the journey of really useful monetisation of the insights from that data, but we’re starting to see where the opportunity paths are, and where we can create value.

“Critically, with data and data privacy, you’ve got to be very clear about the purpose you want to use the data for, the integrity of the data and [its] anonymisation. We’re formulating our business process and contracts so that we get express consent.”

Geheran believes that if people understand they are giving permission for a specific use of particular data, not carte blanche, they are far more likely to at least consider it and open the way, finally, to unlocking customers’ data for innovation that benefits all – the business and its customers.

Cloud gives O2 Telefónica’s rivals a run for their money network-wise

Mallik Rao didn’t inherit Germany’s biggest or best network, but set out to make sure cloudcos knocked on his door first, he tells Contributing Editor, Annie Turner, as he prepares for next generation services.

Mallikarjun [Mallik] Rao joined O2 Telefónica in Germany as CTIO in November 2019. He came from Vodafone where he’d spent eight years in senior roles in three different markets. He is humorous, articulate and unfazed.

In the month Rao became CTIO, Telefónica Group’s CEO, José María Álvarez-Pallete, launched his five-point strategy for the group, underlining Germany’s importance as one of its four key markets, alongside Brazil, Spain and the UK. Germany contributes about 23% of the Group’s revenues.

Rao says, “I had the mandate to run the whole technology function.” Previously, IT and network were separate functions under two board members, and the role chief digital officer became part of his remit.

“At the time, we had a significant gap compared to our competition.” While according to the first nine months’ earnings report in 2019, the German network was improving, Rao accepted that O2 Telefónica could not match the former incumbent Deutsche Telekom’s infrastructure, “but access network aside, I wanted to give them a run for their money with everything else, whether they were Vodafone, Deutsche Telekom or whoever,” he says with relish.

 

Cloud cover

Rao identified cloud transformation as the means to do this and in 2020 O2 Telefónica in Germany “launched a three-year ‘Investment for Growth’ programme which is where I have significantly invested my time and effort. Having a good network in the market is essentially about execution: from getting the base stations done to getting customer experience [sorted], from both the point of view of customers’ perception and performance. That is one mission.”

He continues, “The second thing, as I said, is to dominate mindshare in this market compared to anybody else on cloud – both IT and network. So if AWS or Google [Cloud] or Microsoft or any cloud company wants to come to Germany, they would all knock my door first…I feel that’s one of the biggest success factors so far.”

How did he do it? “I kicked off a cultural transformation inside O2 Telefónica,” he explains. In 2020, the company had six cloud-certified architects, now it has 75. Four years ago, 51 was the average age of people in his team, which had little international diversity and only 6 to 7% were women. Since then, the telco has recruited about 375 people with an average age of 35. Women make up about 36% of the new intake and 62% of it is not German.

 

Cloudification challenges

He continues, “Most telcos’ CIOs do not want to do big transformations and most of the CEOs do not trust the CIOs or CTOs to do a technology transformation. That trust is gone because nobody has been able to execute. It was [an industry-wide] problem.”

Nothing daunted, Rao says, “You cannot scale the edge without changing the core” and three years ago established the Radical Architecture IT Transformation programme to shift the core network to 5G Standalone (SA). It is important to note that as well as being 100% cloud native, it is 100% public cloud and encompasses “the whole BSS – Salesforce, Hansen [Technologies], Nokia and several companies that participate in the best-of-breed IT programme,” he states.

Rao adds, “I have three very strong programmes running the entire IT transformation, and not even one server is on-premises, including the entire BSS, and 80% of the OSS is also on the country’s public cloud. That’s the direction we’re going. Then for our network functions, the whole packet core is on the public cloud.”

Is there anything he wouldn’t put on the public cloud? He reflects, “I might deploy the user plane on-premise or some other regional data centre because I don’t want to take the call, but that’s for a commercial reason not a technology reason. You don’t want to carry the traffic back into public cloud and then bring it back into my network. So we will split the user plane, some in public cloud, but most of the traffic functions are on-premise, even for a hyperscaler’s regional data centre.”

 

Measuring success

Rao measures success in terms of the number of customers served, how many products are on offer and the amount of revenue flowing through the platform. He says, “Today, only a small part of O2 Telefónica’s revenue is generated via the new platform and, by end of 2024, we want to scale it up significantly to several hundreds of million euros. Then I will say, ‘Yeah, we’ve successfully transformed the systems’. Otherwise, all we can say is we’ve created cloud-native technology.”

While some operators are not willing to ‘risk’ their telco cloud on public platforms due to concerns about security and data privacy, Rao says, “I’m more comfortable to drive the public cloud providers to have a sovereign cloud in each and every country. I am not the decision-maker, but I am a significant influencer. They have committed, they will invest to satisfy the regulatory environment in every country, specifically in Europe.”

When AWS announced its European Sovereign Cloud in October, Rao was quoted in the official press statement saying, “The new AWS European Sovereign Cloud can be a game-changer for highly regulated business segments in the European Union.”

 

Automation without killing innovation

How hard has network automation been in this shift to the public cloud and what role has AI played and what role will it play in the future? “Two things,” he answers. “We have a globally autonomous network which we have been building for the last two years, but we think automation and AI should not be backwardly compatible like we usually do in telecoms because that kills innovation. So I don’t have the answer [about the future of AI] but I can tell you that is our thinking is right now.

“Whatever network automation we want to do it must be forward looking. Let’s say, for example, 5G RAN. I don’t want to do automation on 4G, not even for 5G NSA, because in 2025 we strive to go to 5G SA only.” He describes 5G NSA as “neither a future nor past technology unlike 3G, which is gone. We are re-orienting.”

So while there is some relatively basic AI and automation for predictive maintenance, automating the network operations centre (NOC) and some deploy functions, for generative AI and large language models (LLMs) the build will be forward-looking only.

He says, “If I have a 5G SA in 2025, that should be the most modern, most adaptable for all these functions. We call it Network of the Future. When I say ‘network’, I mean radio, transport and core all under the BSSs because there is no point…in just automating the network. If I can’t have provisioning for the customer for any on-demand services – whether it’s slicing or anything else – if the provisioning is not automated, if my billing is not compatible, if my customer service cannot serve that particular customer, it’s pointless.”

 

Next steps

Looking forward, Rao says, “The aim in 2025 is to have at least 20% of traffic on that Network of the Future”. He and his team built a greenfield IT stack, and are now migrating customers and products to it. Likewise, they were thinking about building a cloud-based core.

He agrees that it’s disappointing that 5G SA has taken the industry much longer to deploy than expected but as telco and cloud mesh increasingly, Rao says, “Now is the time for 5G SA as a technology enabler. With cloud-native functions, you can expose your network for developers – what we call the Open Gateway in the industry – to try out our networks.

“We have been extremely cautious [previously]…we didn’t allow anybody to touch our networks because of security. We built a complete walled garden. So that walled garden now can be open via CAMARA: you’re able to open interfaces to the developer community, or even hyperscalers…That gives us much bigger hope because then networks become part of the same essential call flow whereas today, we have been bypassed by the OTTs.”

He adds, “Before the OTTs’ application servers could talk to the client device without the operators’ involvement. With the new generation of services, they have to be via me.”

 

It starts now

How far away is this new generation of services? “It starts now, Rao states. “Last year we published one or two APIs – quality of service (QoS) and location – between Telefónica, Vodafone, Deutsche Telekom and a couple of other big operators that have started implementing CAMARA. We will get momentum as we go live commercially with one or two use cases.”

Already Zoom is working with Orange, Telefónica and Vodafone on QoS on-demand. Other companies are keen to use the location API to reduce fraud by knowing the exact location of a device that wants to transact. Rao continues, “By early 2024 we will start implementing one or two use cases, then at scale in 2024-2025.” By which he means being able to handle 100 million API calls. This, he concludes cheerfully, “Is really nothing in the telecoms world across three or four operators – right now we manage billions of them, in real time, anywhere in the world”.

 

Network automation’s role in balancing cost to serve with future benefits

Axiata Group’s Thomas Hundt explains to Contributing Editor Annie Turner explains that network automation’s role in balancing cost to serve with future benefits is a delicate balance, buffeted by macroeconomic forces, and timing is key.

Thomas Hundt is Group Chief Strategy & Technology Officer at Axiata Group, based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He has held senior roles within the group since 2008, which has mobile operations in Malaysia (celcomdigi), Indonesia (XL Axiata), Bangladesh (Robi Axiata), Nepal (Ncell Axiata), Sri Lanka (Dialog Axiata) and Cambodia (Smart Axiata) of which Hundt has been the CEO from its inception in 2008 till 2021.

It also runs an infrastructure business, edotco, which has a portfolio of more than 58,000 towers across Malaysia, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Indonesia, the Philippines and Laos. It has an AdTech business, ADA, and a FinTech business, Boost.

The newly merged and jointly held operator company in Malaysia, celcomdigi, was created by Axiata combining its Malaysian opco with that of Telenor in November 2022. Also, towards the end of last year, the new Malaysian government decided to review the previous government’s 5G policy of building an open, single wholesale 5G network, Digital Nasional Berhad (DNB), to be used by all the country’s mobile service providers. As the situation is in flux, our interview focuses on the Indonesian, Bangladeshi, Nepalese, Sri Lankan and Cambodian markets.

These countries are culturally diverse, but to a greater or lesser extent are all low-affordability markets, with ARPU of between $5 and $2 at the bottom end of the range. All have and are still suffering from the effects of the pandemic, then the cost-of-living crisis, with Sri Lanka hit particularly hard. At the same time, as Hundt observes, “The operating environment is very intense capital-wise and that drives our thinking about operational efficiency: cost-to-serve is probably the primary concern.”

 

Cost to operate with an eye on the future

So far, Axiata has only launched 5G in Malaysia through DNB but has shut down its 3G networks in most markets. Hundt stresses, “4G is our bread and butter [but] we are not behind the curve in terms of having state-of-the-art networks because only by going for state-of-the-art networks can you hit the cost positions we are striving for.” He adds, “We are looking at our cost structures and network design from an end state where 100% of revenues are coming from data-driven services.

He also points out that 5G is about more than the network: it relies on the business case, regulatory readiness and ecosystem development, availability of 5G-ready devices and their affordability, and the availability of spectrum. “Any of these components can delay progress in markets,” he says, adding that he expects some solid steps towards 5G deployments next year in some of Axiata’s markets.

Hundt notes the timing of the 5G investment cycle in the wider industry is “not necessarily translating immediately into returns”. Hence he expects 5G’s more efficient use of spectrum will be the biggest driver initially because as 4G networks hit their capacity ceiling, “It will not be economically viable to fix a capacity crunch by adding more and more sites – 5G is needed to widen the pipe for eMBB [enhanced mobile broadband],” he explains.

So, although Axiata is very interested in the potential of private networks, massive IoT and other innovative B2B use cases, “none will fly or be a financially solid investment case unless the consumer ecosystem adopts 5G,” he argues.

“When we look at designing our network and IT stack, costs to operate, synergies and efficiencies are against that background.” He adds, “Energy costs and carbon footprint are… of high priority. This includes the cost of building reliable networks in markets where the stability of the grid varies.”

 

Consuming energy

Hundt explains, “We are tackling [energy consumption] on multiple fronts. The first is by optimising infrastructure by investing in modern power systems. We have mostly abandoned cooling at radio sites by transforming legacy indoor sites to outdoor. We have put solar panels at thousands of sites across all our markets, wherever they make economic sense so, to have at least a hybrid power supply. In parallel we focus on the active radio components where we are working on AI and power algorithms to kick in,.”

“We have tested several energy optimisation solutions. Everyone touts them but you only find out which make dynamic impacts by testing. Results depend on traffic profile, and the patterns you’re running. The first wave of energy efficiency solutions relied on simple manual triggers.” Hundt is hoping for greater sophistication but says so far study outcomes “are not up to our liking” and that “the real impact is yet to come”.

“I believe if full machine learning/AI algorithms were deployed to make dynamic changes, then we could see significantly better results. Of course, network modernisation plays its role as well. If you run outdated gear, you shouldn’t be surprised that energy consumption is very high – although we need to manage modernisation capex as well. Energy consumption is a very broad topic and a constant development effort with our partners.”

After cost to serve, Hundt says networks’ reliability and availability are Axiata Group’s main concerns and “the complexity of networks and operationalising them is why network automation and autonomous networks are very, very important”.

“Achieving [ETSI’s] Autonomous Network (AN) Level 3 by 2025 is our goal. However, it’s not just box ticking to say, ‘We’ve automated at this level,’ but about what is really driving our operational efficiency, and which use cases can make a difference, built on an AN approach. That’s where analytics and automation at scale come into play. We have dedicated teams including what we call an AI factory to help operationalise it.”

Hundt continues, “This is a framework, a concept that includes common architecture and tooling, use case and algorithm sharing, talent development etc. We have deployed ‘AI factories’ across our opcos. Further, we operationalise network and IT across our opcos through an organisational structure called the ‘Collective Brain.’ We have a relatively light team at group headquarters – a handful of people – then very smart brains out there in the opcos. They solve common problems together.”

 

Being data driven

“The tools we are using, how we operationalise and deploy them into the network and IT stacks, everything starts from collecting, cleansing, retaining, growing and governing data; the architecture of the data lake and so on is our own,” Hundt adds. He acknowledges, “The biggest challenge still, frankly, is data governance, data collection, data retention – assembling all sorts of network and IT data – because garbage in, garbage out. If you haven’t built a very robust engine underneath you will not get to the promised outcomes further down the line.”

For now, he says, “I believe network automation really kicks in when it comes to the best way of sweating assets. How can we maximise Quality of Service and capacity? We need self-optimised networks (SON) tuning the network constantly, then things like fault prevention and preventive maintenance so that up times are optimised. These are the places we’ve seen automation work best so far with good but not satisfactory results yet.”

Hundt states: “I believe that, especially in context of network optimisation, our industry is behind the innovation curve. Solutions out there are still primarily static, trigger based and set to predefined parameters. There’s not enough machine learning capability in the network domain to constantly iterate and improve itself, so that’s a major opportunity for development.”

He is upbeat about network automation’s role in network and capacity planning, Axiata is investing in solutions to allocate capex for network expansion capacity more optimally. “Those are the areas in which we are putting probably our biggest effort and we anticipate seeing good results,” he says. “When it comes to network operations, virtual NOCs, we are yet to see the outcomes but we are working on developing and deploying use cases along those lines, as per our aspiration of hitting Autonomous Network level 3 by 2025.”

 

What does transformation mean?

He notes wryly that the term ‘transformation’ always seems to be used “with a flavour of a timely, limited process being kicked off”. This doesn’t fit his view: “Transforming means you’re never standing still,” Hundt says. There is no goalpost – they move permanently, so it’s a never ending thing. From a strategy standpoint, you need sufficient angles of attack, and that obviously includes strategic considerations such as delayering and a lighter than the traditional full-stack approach we’ve had over decades.”

He states, “To achieve all this delayering we must adopt progressive ways of thinking and working…At the same time, certain fundamentals remain. Connectivity has its place, and perhaps even more so than [was obvious] a few years back, but it has to be done via the most efficient and effective setup, which we are still trying to figure out. This is constantly the focus of operational efficiency and lowest cost to serve. We have a place there. The question to telcos is, ‘In which layers do you want to play and have the right to win?’.”

Hundt does not see “moving up the value stack” as necessarily “the most optimal move”, but clearly Axiata Group is keeping its options open. It was only the second telco in the world to be certified as ‘Running on ODA’, that is TM Forum’s Open Digital Architecture compliance certification. Hundt says, “We’re very much engaged with GSMA on Open Gateway and CAMARA which are great initiatives.”

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.

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