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FutureNet Asia, Rakuten Speaker Interview

Miro Salem, Global Head of Artificial Intelligence & Autonomous Networks, Rakuten Mobile, is speaking on a Panel at FutureNet Asia on 27th October. We recently caught up with Miro to get his thoughts on the panel topic: Intelligent operations for new 5G and Edge ecosystems: A game changer?

How do you start building intelligent operations for a 5G and edge world?

A solid foundation is key. Intelligent operations require the right tools and culture, from efficiently extracting and understanding network data to taking intelligent action. Without a stable ecosystem of tools (e.g., data platform, AI platform, usecase backlogs, etc) and full synchronization across the organization (e.g., RAN, core, cloud, security, devops, etc), intelligent operations will be siloed, duplicated, and inefficient. They require alignment and buy-in from all stakeholders. Only with this clarity can true intelligent operations across various layers and elements of the production network flourish.

Should CSPs adopt a multi-cloud model for delivering immersive, multi-access edge computing services and use cases?

Yes. 5G brings new opportunities and challenges that we must overcome. One of those challenges is the much lower latency requirement all the way to the physical layer.  5G has a much shorter Transmission Time Interval (TTI) than its predecessor, 4G. This means processing and round-trip delay must be carefully considered, especially for mmWave use cases. Pixel streaming gaming is an example application use case that demonstrates the need for edge computing services. More and more applications will need to use edge for low latency (e.g., AR, VR, etc).  The need for the multi-cloud model becomes stronger when considering inter-operator edge clouds.

How can CSPs embed the right capabilities and technologies for scalability and automation in their 5G propositions when the business case for growth remains unclear?

The digital transformation of telco has given operators, what I believe to be, the ultimate enabler: virtualization. Embracing the fact that new technologies, services, and applications can be deployed within minutes, even seconds, including in the RAN, we can tailor best-fit solutions and adapt as we go. A fully virtualized, containerized, modular end-to-end network allows operators to respond based on customer needs, not vendor requirements. Like any entity in search of a business model, agility and speed to adapt to customer needs are essential. Business models are discovered, not dictated.

How important is automation’s role in intelligent operations?

The role is fundamental. Automation is the first practical step towards autonomous networks, which is our final goal. Intelligence is a key enabling suite of technologies and mindsets to take the next step towards autonomy. That said, it is important to remember that sometimes automation is sufficient for the task at hand. As with all things in life, it depends on the problem we are trying to solve.

To hear more insight from Miro, join the event and register here

FutureNet Asia, NTT DoCoMo Speaker Interview

Zaif Siddiqi, Executive Director, Global Head 5G & IoT Enterprise Business, NTT DoCoMo, is speaking on a Panel at FutureNet Asia. We recently caught up with Zaif to get his thoughts on the topic of his panel: 5G & Intelligent Edge – Unleashing the potential.

What do CSPs need to do to operate at the edge?

CSPs are strategically positioned whereby they provide network and services. Bringing edge into this picture means they can leverage both of these areas to their advantage and also choose to collaborate with ecosystem partners including the hyperscalers. Therefore, CSPs should ramp up their capabilities with highly skilled talent in the edge to be able to advise clients how to optimize the infrastructure and develop new business models with lower costs. This will bring in new revenue streams and open more doors for the CSPs to further capitalize on the infrastructure and the solutions they provide.

How big is the opportunity?

There are big estimates given by a number of sources but we will become aware of the outcome only after real massive deployments take place. Examples would be expressways, railroads and general public infrastructures. There could also be cases for specific location solutions such as in stadiums, hospitals and business complexes. At DOCOMO, we already have our own edge known as the docomo Open Innovation Cloud (dOIC). It offers an AI embedded feature and allows partners to develop applications. We already see many uses cases in areas of XR and Intelligent Edge Security.

How much will better quality of experience owe to a dynamic, distributed cloud-based model?

With dynamic and distributed cloud-based model, data can literally be anywhere whether on-premise, public cloud or edge. From a user standpoint, it may really not matter how the mix is as long as user experience is not downgraded and security not compromised. The distributed cloud model allows easier management of the clusters. This means that you pretty much end up with a true  “open cloud” that executes the services at any point and operate it with full customization.

What are the implications of edge for the network and are they well understood?

Edge allows data processing closer to the source and alleviates the traffic on the main network. This leads to lower latency since the physical distance is reduced. The question is how much better can it get? If you are operating on a small island with a small population, will edge be a must? If the benefits outweigh the cost, sure it can be deployed but somebody will have to look after that extra box. Both in the consumer and enterprise sectors, for many, edge is something on the learning curve. As more players deliver end to end solutions whether by themselves or through partnerships, sectors that require that extra low latency are studying the benefits of the edge. We often hear of smart factory, smart mobility, smart hospital, smart building and not to forget smart city. Once these become more prevalent, and they are, the edge will surely be better understood and used to enrich our lives.

To hear more insight from Zaif, join the event and register here

 

 

FutureNet Asia,Telstra Speaker Interview

Kim Krogh Andersen, Product & Technology – Group Executive, Telstra, is speaking on a Panel and Presenting a case study at FutureNet Asia. We recently caught up with Kim to get his thoughts on the topic of his presentation: Industry 4.0 – The growth opportunity from the intersection of Cloud, Edge, 5G, IoT and AI.

Do you think 5G and edge computing will be the cornerstone for many IoT and AI applications and devices?

Absolutely. The inherent capabilities of 5G provide an array of opportunities for the evolution of IoT and AI applications, which are well beyond the possibilities of faster mobile broadband.
The massive density and ultra-low latency of 5G will be the basis for the growth of the Internet of Everything across multiple devices, (such as appliances and accessories), and provide AI and data for automation and monetisation opportunities. Its high bandwidth and speed capabilities also enable large amounts of data to be carried back and forth from these devices for AI/data processing either at the integrated Edge or in the Cloud.

What are your views on how these technologies interlink – do you think that in combination value exceeds that of them individually? If so, in which particular areas?

5G transforms the capability of the mobile network and Edge brings applications closer to the user. 5G brings speed, control and capacity whilst Edge unlocks ultra-low latency for applications. Use cases which require <1ms or even <10ms latency at high bandwidth will need 5G + Edge working in tandem. We will only be able to realise the vision of use cases like fully autonomous vehicles, remote VR to control machinery in real-time and massive IoT deployments driving automated, real-time responses/actions with 5G + Edge in combination.

Which models and use cases are likely to be the most successful?

From a Telstra perspective, there are already a number of examples of relevant use cases for 5G and edge computing. Mobile broadband for low latency streaming is already here, and we have AR and VR for enhanced sports and entertainment experiences (e.g. Telstra’s AR AFL app) now hitting the market. AR and VR will also be a significant benefit to the training, manufacturing and maintenance industries, especially when combined with Digital Twin technologies that we are developing.
From an emergency & protective services perspective, we will see dedicated private 5G network slices with enhanced audio, video and data capabilities. At Telstra, we have also released Network Optimised Products to the market so that some customers can dynamically switch on certain feature enhancements on the go for some use cases (e.g. speed, latency).
APIs will also be a way in which we will be able to innovate and monetise at the pace of technology, tapping ecosystems as a platform and with pure digital programmable engagement with hyperscalers, enterprises and developers.

Are automation and orchestration at the level needed to offer service-defined network slices? If not, when will they be and what needs to happen to get them there?

Technologically speaking, we are already here, and are already somewhat doing this with our Network Optimised Products. With the advent of standalone 5G, we look forward to being able to spin up slices for customers dynamically, providing personalised feature enhancements on the go.

To hear more insight from Kim, join the event and register here

 

 

FutureNet Asia, M1 Speaker Interview

Nathan Bell, Chief Digital Officer, M1, is speaking on Opening CxO Keynote Panel at FutureNet Asia on 27th October. We recently caught up with Nathan to get his thoughts on The Network of the Future and the Future Telco.

How do you see customers’ needs changing and over what time period?

Customers’ communication and data needs will evolve in the same way their digital consumption has evolved. What I mean is that it’s all about lowering my spend but having the option to leverage higher-value services such as lower latency when I need it for gaming, Virtual reality or other future defined services. Some of these aspects are already available but it will be about immediacy, as in I want to consume something, I don’t want to have to wait as I may not want it later, in fact I may want something else. This is similar to our consumption of new apps or content, if we can’t use it when we want to then we are likely to delete or forget about it altogether

Will automation and intelligence live up to their potential and meet those needs?

Automation will be critical in this aspect, there must be an ability for the digital platform to capture the customer request, validate any payment or security concerns, and then immediately activate the incremental service. Intelligence will be critical to analyze the short term service requests from customers and provide recommendations on future traffic shaping and where upgrades are to be likely by when based on predefined rules.

Where will the real revenue growth come from for operators?

Well that’s the holy grail isn’t it? How revenue is defined will ultimately depend on what value we can help individual customers and businesses with as this will determine the real revenue outcome. The opportunity lies in being able to aid businesses with matching their own elasticity needs facing events like the current global pandemic, financial crisis, or natural disasters having an increasingly global impact businesses in particular face the greatest challenge. Businesses need to be able to adapt to their environmental, market and business demands whether that is shifting from office working to remote working, operating at scale to being able to reduce capacity and scale only when demand validates the same or shaping the network from supporting applications to supporting large scale video for conferences. Some of this is possible today but bringing this to life across fixed and mobile networks with no human intervention and teams focusing on strategic planning and preventative fixing will represent a big change in the future.

How much will open networking, programmability and disaggregation change the game for telcos?

I can’t talk to the principle of Open Networking as Telecom providers have significant responsibilities to meet for their customers and various government organisations hence I would suggest this is likely a big conversation on its own. I would say though, one game changer I do see is AI centred on networks. The real key will be being able to leverage network systems that can learn, assess, adapt and recommend to the dynamic requirements from customers.

To hear more insight from Nathan, join the event and register here

FutureNet Asia, Robi Axiata Speaker Interview

Asif Rashid, CIO, Robi Axiata, is speaking on the Panel: Operational Transformation: Accelerating the journey to zero-touch automation, on the 27th of October. We recently caught up with Asif to get his thoughts on the topic in advance of FutureNet Asia.

Why do you see the need for new operating models for the modern telco?

Telcos need new operating models mainly for two reasons; to adapt to the changing needs of their customers and to ensure healthy returns on their investments. Telecom landscape is constantly changing as their B2C and B2B customers need more diversified enablement from telecom operators, especially in the digital ecosystem. The challenge for Telcos is to deliver that keeping shareholders’ interests served. Many telcos have not been built over the years to switch gears just like that. An ad hoc approach may not work. The most preferred approach seems to be creating a new target operating model and carefully balancing the legacy and the new digital businesses through separate playbooks.

What should an optimum operating and organisational model look like in a 5G world?

A 5G world is a service-oriented one. Customers would not be fooled through intangible value proposition that’s not quite there but could be claimed. The QoS would be as transparently visible as the clear sky. Therefore, the first thing a telco must consider is to ensure it can meet the committed quality of service over 5G before making a commitment. A telco must also be sure to have a solid mid to long term business case to get due buying from its shareholders. The optimum model for running a 5G business would vary market to market. For many Asian markets, the NSA-based overlay model may work quite well as cost of 5G SA may not have immediate payback. So Telcos may opt for organic addition of a 5G focused operating and organizational model.

How important are automation and AI in the transformation model?

If a telco leaves out AI and automation from its transformation model, it will most likely end up having a model that won’t sustain. The telcos that will leverage Cloud, AI & automation as their key enablers for supporting their transformation model are more likely to keep their costs & efforts at optimum level, have more diversified offerings for their customers, achieve their goals faster, and be able to tweak their models as they experiment them in their markets of operations. Also, if a telco wants to scale up or down certain spot-winners from their service array, AI, Cloud and automation are must in order to do that real quick and error-free.

What are the barriers for operators to accelerate towards zero touch automation?

The biggest barrier for telcos to switch to zero touch automation seems to be their complex legacy network that would resist quick changes, not always deliberately but in many cases haplessly. Zero touch automation best works if the deployed network elements are built to accept intelligent instructions rather seamlessly. The new generations systems offer moderate-to-strong built-in intelligence. Therefore, creating the orchestration for a telco to manage this network with zero or fewer touch is relatively easier. The data or insight produced by a smart system would also be designed to give away the pulse without bombarding the upper monitoring layers. For legacy systems or a complex network collecting, correlating, deducing, pin pointing, and eventually resolving an issue would be lot more challenging.

To hear more insight from Asif, join the event and register here

 

 

FutureNet Asia, Airtel Speaker Interview

Randeep Sekhon, CTO, Airtel, is speaking on the Panel: The Network of the Future and the Future Telco, on the 27th October. We recently caught up with Randeep to get his thoughts on The Network of the Future and the Future Telco.

What will tomorrow’s customers look like?

Fast-paced digitization in customer lifestyles is revolutionising the way a telecom provider is perceived by the end customer. For the customer of tomorrow, ‘unlimited & ubiquitous connectivity’ would become even more critical as users would engage with their homes, business, work & learning more & more through telecom services. Maneuvering through the entire day would mean maximum tasks being done through the smartphone / IOT devices – be it using the e-wallet, entertainment, engaging with AI powered home solutions, education, healthcare, or work.

Customers would expect a simple and converged service provider which can take care of all of their digital lifecycle requirements. They would expect service providers to stitch journeys across different access networks and on different engagement channels (on-line or offline)

How must the network evolve to meet their needs?

Service providers would need to build converged networks that can be orchestrated through software APIs. Virtualization of the network is key to configure the network as per customer’s requirement and applications based on time of the day & their geographical locations.  With IoT devices increasingly interacting with the network, network security would be very critical to ensure secure & un-uninterrupted services to the consumers.

Sufficiently faster, secure, agile & efficient network solutions would be key pillars to provide the kind of customer experience and services that the customer of tomorrow is expecting from a telecom operator. Telcos must look at taking the lead in building the partner ecosystem which will enable all these current and new-age services.

 

Which business and operations models do you think are most likely to succeed?

Customer centricity is the guiding principle for any successful business. How comprehensively are we able to listen to the end customer and efficiently translating those needs into products and services would be key drivers of success in the market.

Collaboration amongst service providers, application & cloud partners would become a very important success factor to offer digital services to consumers in both retail & enterprise segments.  Ecosystem partners need to leverage each others’ strengths and stitch business processes among themselves for users to get a seamless experience. APIs from telecom networks would enable network exposure & configuration as per the need of the application provider or user’s preferences.

 

How do you think the relationship between hyperscalers and operators will play out?

Telco networks are getting virtualized day by day going down up to the access network. We have gone through the experience in virtualization of our network from radio to core domain. Network virtualization will further accelerate with the building of ORAN ecosystem & the launch of 5G networks.

This provides an opportunity for operators & hyperscalers to work together for building virtualized telco networks that are scalable, resilient & lower TCO. Automation & AI/ML-based analytics for the virtualized network is very critical for deployment & managing lifecycle of these networks. Experience of the hyperscalers in building scalable cloud networks with end-to-end automation at a lower cost of ownership would be of value to the telcos.

To hear more insight from Randeep, join the event and register here

A competitive cost base is Orange’s end-game, not short-term cost reduction

Yves Bellego, Director Network Strategy at Orange

Yves Bellego of Orange talks to Contributing Editor Annie Turner about the group’s next big, experimental step towards the fully automated network.

Yves Bellego, Director Network Strategy, has worked for the Orange group for almost 30 years, in which time he’s seen a lot of change. Like life in general, things inside telcos don’t always turn out exactly the way we expect, and looking back to the beginnings of network automation with NFV, he reflects that too much emphasis was put on cost savings from the start.

All kinds of extravagant claims were made: for example, research carried out by ACG Research in 2015 reckoned mobile network operators could reduce capital expenditure of the mobile packet core by 68% and operating expenditure by 67% through the use of NFV over a five-year period.

Bellego says that cost savings should not have been and should not be a short-term driver. In his view, “There were two drivers [for NFV and telco cloud]. One was just the technological improvement, the evolution, of servers that make it technologically feasible to put functions on more harmonised servers. The second driver is flexibility, operational efficiency if you like, because those are the benefits we saw from very early deployments.”

Bellego also thinks how much early virtualization efforts moved things on is underestimated too. He says, “the scalability effect on capacity is so much easier within the telco cloud than it was with dedicated hardware servers.” He adds, “What is coming and what we expect are the capabilities that will be given by the availability of more data. This is in fact something that we are just starting to test.”

A blueprint for future networks

Orange Lannion Lab

Bellego is referring to the experimental 5G network that Orange announced at the end of June. The operator has built the network at its famous R&D centre in Lannion in Brittany, France.

The cloud-native, software-defined network, known as Pikeo, is to be developed as a blueprint for future networks, based on Open RAN and cloud architecture.

The motivation for building Pikeo is to gain a deep understanding of exactly how the end-to-end 5G Standalone cloud-native network – which Orange says is the first in Europe – will perform in the real world. The ultimate goal is to identify the best network architecture to deliver ubiquitous, flexible and automated connectivity that adjusts to any given service, to the particular user and the specific situation in an area of coverage.

Put another way, Orange is working to find out how AI-enabled, zero-touch networking functions, and to understand the full implications for a large, complex software-enabled, Kubernetes-based network.

Introducing services

The operators plans to deliver 5G services to Orange employees in Lannion starting this summer, then extend this to both employees and some Orange customers over the next two years, gradually increasing this to several hundred users. The operator plans to deploy the network in other locations in 2022 and start testing network applications running on network slices.

When Pikeo was announced, Bellego’s colleague, Michaël Trabbia, Chief Technology and Innovation Officer at Orange, said staff who now monitor networks and deal with alarms and trouble-tickets will become AI experts and contribute to improving the algorithms so that the network becomes increasingly proactive, instead of reactive.

As Bellego says, “5G Standalone is one of the bigger tracks on which we can benefit from the cloud and have the capability to set up containers or virtual machines to easily ramp up and down there. So that should help to set up and remove network functions pretty easily, but that is not the only benefit – having much more efficient optimization algorithms based on data coming from lots of different sources is another big trend that we see in the coming months.

Bellego says, “So with functions being in the cloud, from the radio to the core, the interesting thing is when we put the AI algorithms that can work on data from the radio and from the core, and from the transmission and from the IT. This is where we expect to have improvements in the operational efficiency and in the end, on the performance of the network.”

What we have today

He explains, “Today we have C-SON – centralised self-organising – it’s a kind of automation on the network with a little bit of AI inside it, but the limitation of that is it’s mainly and almost only on the radio mobile access. It does not encompass mobile access and core, and what we are just starting to test is optimization algorithms that encompass all of the network, the radio, but also the backhaul, the IP, the core network, and we can include some customer data. Then we will have capabilities that we do not have today.”

“In terms of network performance…this is when we will get the full benefit of the cloud [and] we will have better cost structure compared to our competitors and compared to the past. From a customer perspective, what we have achieved on the B2B side a few years ago with software-defined networking – which was a great improvement, [through] automation –we expect to have similar benefits for our entire customer base.”

Regarding the telco cloud infrastructure, he continues, “what applies to the cloud is the same as what applies to all elements of the network. The same on the radio, we could also say we want to own radio with specifications that differ from the specifications of Telefonica or Deutsche Telekom or Vodafone, for example, but we realise that that does not work. We are in an industry where economies of scale are of great importance and we need to have some commonalities of specifications.”

Bellego concludes, “We do not want to have a network that is totally different from that of Telefonica, say. We are in the same race, but at the end, we want to differentiate on the way we use a deployed network, on the tools we put on it and the architecture we put in place. This is our way to compete.”

Automation underpins ongoing ambitions at Telenor

Ingeborg Øfsthus

Ingeborg Øfsthus is CTO of Telenor Norway, responsible for infrastructure and a multi-billion Norwegian Krone budget. She spoke to Contributing Editor Annie Turner.

Ingeborg Øfsthus holds a master’s degree in electronic communications and has spent her entire career in telecoms. During her time with the Telenor group, she has worked in countries as diverse as Germany and Thailand, and most latterly in Montenegro before returning ‘home’ to her current role in 2018.

Make no mistake: Telenor Norway is ambitious. Øfsthus states, “We were proud to be the world’s fastest network on 4G and now the ambition, of course, is to take that crown for 5G, and that requires really, really diligent follow up on the performance side, to get the maximum out of every single base session.” Clearly, automation has a critical role to play in the operator achieving its goals.

Øfsthus says that our idea of network automation has evolved, but that the first time she really became aware of it was back in the early 2000s. Regardless of their location, Norwegians expect and get the same coverage and quality nationally, although Norway is a long country – 2,518 km north to south, excluding the islands – about half of which is within the Arctic Circle. It includes the most northerly mainland point in Europe, and outside towns and cities, the population is sparse, the terrain hostile and weather a force to be reckoned with.

Back then a common remedy for network outages was a simple reset. Automating resets typically got customers back online in minutes instead of hours, as well as saving the operator a lot of time, cost and resources. Øfsthus says this was the start of the network automation journey and that better customer experience has been a major driver of automation ever since.

Now automation is becoming increasingly necessary, because “with a technology portfolio of fixed, TV, mobile and even broadcasting, there is immense complexity in our infrastructure and if we want the same people to run it in our network operating centres…we can’t do it unless we have a high level of automation,” she says.

Three-year rebuild programme

In addition to the ever more complex day-to-day operations, Telenor Norway is on a “historic”, three-year journey to rebuild its mobile and transport networks with 10 times more capacity to support future services including 5G. Naturally, this must all happen without negatively impacting customers.

To these ends, her team spent last year building “what we call a scalable factory”, to smooth the national roll-out, she explains. “We need to automate everything; we need to do as much as possible while we are at each site because we cannot afford to go back and forth to fix it”.

The operator has automated the planning process, roll-out process, verification and operations, “And that’s to be able to scale up so that we are able to do the necessary number of modernisations per week, in order to meet a very, very demanding time target to complete this within,” she says.

She says the modernisation approach is about “supporting use of the TDD spectrum [time division duplex – used in 4G] to ensure correct synchronisation – as well as increasing capacity to each site, changing the routers and rebuilding every [base station] site”. These days, network optimisation is a case of “super-fine tuning [that] is supposed to work in an excellent way without the customers noticing that we changed everything. That’s the expectation.”

Experimenting with AI

To gain this predictive capability, Telenor is looking “to put the intelligence on top” of data Øfsthus says and there is a lot of experimentation with AI in this area.

Another priority is being able to shift capacity around the network to where it is needed as demand and conditions change. She gives the example of a traffic accident which means you suddenly have a big density of people in a certain part of the road network.

A third area is saving energy in the RAN: few users mean the power can be turned down accordingly without affecting performance, for example. Yet another use case for AI is picking up anomalies in the RAN’s performance that could indicate underlying problems and trying to figure out, remotely where possible, what that cause is, from needing a simple restart or software patch, or a more consistent power supply.

Øfsthus stresses, “We really want maximum performance out the network and maximum customer experience…We see that we have thousands and thousands of parameters that are going to play together, and maybe I am just doing a sample to see how the antennas are tilted – a very physical thing – and we can adjust centrally.” A different setting may be needed in summer than in winter when ice is replaced by water, for instance.

Fixed mobile access

This focus on customer service right down to each base station is really important because not only is the operator rebuilding its core and transport network, but the mobile network is taking on huge traffic loads from the old copper network which Telenor is decommissioning at the same time. When Øfsthus became CTO in 2018, Telenor Norway decided to reduce the planned eight-year decommissioning schedule down to four years. This is possibly the world’s most ambitious copper shutdown programme, and although not as automated as she would like it to be, automation still plays a part.

A key element of this is when shifting customers from copper to fibre or to fixed mobile access (FWA), where getting fibre to them is not viable, Øfsthus explains, “We wanted people to be able to keep their own devices like the set-top boxes and routers when we swapped the network”. A field engineer is still involved in installing the outdoor equipment for the FWA, but within the house the configuration is fully automated – the customer does not have to do anything – and this has proved very popular.

This efficient and fast migration to new access infrastructure was made possible by automating customer journeys and capacity checks to ensure fixed wireless access is not sold in areas where there is insufficient capacity. This is made possible by linking together many data sources, such as the radio and fixed planning systems, to establish the best solution for each household or enterprise.

If customers are taken offline by lightning, for instance, and Telenor plans to switch that area to fixed wireless, say, in the next six months, the customer is offered a future-proof replacement product immediately instead of making the repair then returning six months later for the upgrade. Customers get the upgrade faster, which pleases most, and Telenor saves resources and time.

Customers are typically moved onto 4G for fixed wireless access, but ultimately this will be replaced by 5G, providing speeds comparable to fibre.

Cloudifying the core

Øfsthus says, “From the 5G point of view, we are at the top of our journey on Non-standalone, and now we are moving into the IT world, cloudifying our core. We want a common platform to put all our applications on which is vendor-agnostic. That means you can change the pace of offering solutions.

“This is totally different than what we used to do in the old core world, and we are obviously very much dependent on automating things, like how we test things, how we configure then distribute them into the different data centres. It’s just too much work to do manually.”

However, Øfsthus notes, “When we take the telco part into the cloud world, there is some lack of maturity and for us to fully utilise the potential, we need automation to deploy changes as fast as we want.”

She accepts that despite being aggressive regarding modernisation and getting rid of legacy, Telenor will have to live with some legacy systems for a while yet, such as for fault tracking and change management. She asks, “How much effort do you put into automation in systems that have a limited lifetime…when we have the ambition [to have] touch-free operations by 2023?”

Asked about full network automation, Øfsthus comments, “The complexity in ecosystems and delivering what customers will want in the future – particularly large enterprises – [mean] there will be more than enough for us to utilise our human brain and hands. We should have the ambition that everything should be automated and then see where the exceptions are.”

She is mindful of the effort needed to get “from the slogans to implementation” regarding network automation. She says the question remains how to get into “that seamless, integrated way of thinking forever. You need to put in effort to really understand the processes and understand what you want to achieve, but that takes time and resources. You need the right balance: we are very ambitious but we can’t stop redoing absolutely everything else to focus only on automation.”

Other factors to consider include new partnerships that are being formed and hyperscalers moving into telecoms while traditional telecoms vendors are regrouping to meet the changing market demands.

Like many other forward-thinking operators, Telenor Norway’s roadmap governing cloud migration has an open architecture at its heart that is vendor-agnostic. She says, “That is a strong ambition and a strong strategy… I don’t think it’s what all vendors want, but when the market is unified in pushing for something, it has an impact.”

Rakuten Mobile’s DNA – template, replicate, automate, accelerate

Rahul Atri, Managing Director, Rakuten Mobile Singapore, Head of Products & Engineering, Rakuten Communications Platform (RCP), has “worked for two or three greenfield companies” including Reliance Jio, which totally disrupted the Indian market, and various vendors.

Now at Rakuten Mobile, he works for the most disruptive greenfield of all and some think the business model behind his particular area of responsibility, the RCP, is more revolutionary than the network build. Atri says Rakuten Mobile’s network is foundational to RCP’s success .

How do you go about building a communication infrastructure unlike any other in the world? Atri says that although Rakuten Mobile sees itself very much as an IT company rather than a telco, it faced considerable challenges. Hence, “when we began, we focused primarily on the basic components – people, process then technology. Automation for us has been a necessity and part of the culture from the start,” he says.

Most of his team comes from a software engineering background. Even so, “We invested a lot in people to build the entrepreneurship, mindset and DNA to think differently, not as typical telcos. Then we focused a lot on processes to define how we go about ‘solutioning’ anything, and how to make the process more digital. We didn’t start with operations on day one,” he explains.

Fundamental to automation

The team soon realised that to automate everything demand precision: “For instance, if you want to auto-commission the RAN, you need to be very sure which server on which radio site, in what location and with what serial number is out there and that you want to push your configuration on,” Atri says.

He claims this is in contrast to operators’ often piecemeal approach to automation: they deploy everything then scramble to figure out exactly which inventory is where and what configuration is needed.

In the interests of speed, Rakuten mobile was designing, building and running the network at the same time. Atri explains, “We realised the whole idea of automation is not about integrating a couple of systems with APIs north and southbound, but to manage the lifecycle from scratch; to do the operational day to day.

“Automation was absolute necessity because we had to launch this network and that’s how we were able to do that in one and a half years. We launched 200 to 300 sites live on air every day. We auto-configured 20 to 30 cloud edges clouds every day, and then operations, especially in this COVID situation, became a little easier for us because we invested heavily in automation.”

He states, “For us there was no playbook, no cheat code and no tools to configure the cloud-native network, and that’s…why I mentioned people and processes before the technology.”

Atri says, “[The team] went into details of each and every call flow each and every integration. There’s not a single member in my team who doesn’t understand that when a OSS system talks to a MANO system, and a MANO system talks to a cloud, what parameters are exchanged between them. So we went into that level of detail and that’s how we kind of templatized everything, and this is the platform that we are now taking into the global arena”.

Open to the world

Rakuten Mobile is making its architecture and best practices available to operators round the world through the RCP to help them replicate Rakuten Mobile’s model and success. Rakuten Mobile will not discuss customers and prospective customers at the moment, but the RCP allows customers to visit an online marketplace where they can purchase and deploy everything they want to run their private, cloud-native, virtualised 5G mobile network, regardless of where in the world they are based.

Atri elaborates: “After the infrastructure, you have the cloud and you can deploy Kubernetes or OpenStack, whichever version [of them] you want, and on top of that you have the applications and orchestration. You can design the application and manage the lifecycle.

“The BSS/OSS layer runs on top of that. OSS is more than the ordinary OSS: we offer 45 systems…You can [choose and] register your vendor digitally, register their material hardware/software services, then you can do procurement – you can raise RFPs and track them.

“You have a warehouse services, inventory management inventory across hardware and the physical-logical topology. You then you have the automation of configuration management, fault management, performance management and I could keep talking for another 45 minutes…”.

To get to this point with the RCP Atri says the team “burned through a lot of nights focusing on how to build templates and standard interfaces, so now when they meet potential operator customers the RCP knows what to ask. It doesn’t need to speak to their vendors and the usual things, it just asks them to fill in the template and we know how to integrate the application from there.”

Atri says, “With the success of Rakuten in Japan, people are getting more open, they talk to us a lot more…Coming to the business side, we really think RCP is the pivotal point where the ecosystem and the industry will change.

“I personally love our network in Japan because it’s our baby, we built it from scratch and whatever technology we are taking to the world has been tried and tested in Japan”.

Rakuten Mobile runs Open RAN and virtual RAN (vRAN) commercially to carry 4 million users’ traffic on its end-to-end cloud network. He states, “[We] are managing the first realistic CI/CD [continuous integrated/continuous deployment] pipeline of automation where you have auto-rollbacks and upgrades when you’re talking about the [biggest] number of edge clouds for a telecom network anywhere in the world, where you’re talking about having shifted everything from bare metal to a cloud-native approach on VNFs.”

Embracing the edge

While many telcos are shying away from or taking cautious steps towards the edge, Atri says that from the earliest stages of network design Rakuten planned to deploy regional data centres with “media services, caches, storage, and all the end services users want. It was always about customer experience, right from the start. It was about video, super low latency, and really superior service: being more reliable – all that stuff.”

He thinks the challenge for operators is that they are used to having perhaps three data centres, not maintaining and deploying thousands of them. Atri explains, “For us it comes to replicating templates. We have different regional data centres [that] are all same size, the same capacity and same type of deployment.

“On the far edge, there are five or eight or 10 different types and sizes of edge data centres,” which are templated in terms of the number of racks, how many sites are terminating at the same edge, which version of cloud is involved, how many configurations, the cluster and port size, the number of IP addresses and so on.

Equipment is tracked from the warehouse to deployment where the field engineer photographs each piece of equipment’s QR code to get the serial number and sends it back to base to provide a digital record. The equipment is allocated an IP address, and “I’m ready to do my upgrades or deploy cloud or anything,” Atri says. Now for us, rolling out the feature and services is much faster.

Do standards help or hinder?

Atri says in principle standards are good, but they can hinder innovation. This is particularly true when it comes to complex lifecycle management, like self-healing because while in a data centre there is enough spare capacity to shift applications onto another server if there is a problem, it is not always possible at the edge, especially when the issue is power related or where it co-exists with other facilities

Atri continues, “Also you have hardware and cloud to monitor, and virtual machines or containers, and vRAN. Self-healing is super easy where you only need to take care of one layer, but sometimes I have to correlate…up to the fourth layer if my KPIs aren’t right. These are practical examples and challenges, and I don’t see any practical standards that are mature enough.”

“On a scale of one to 10, I’d love to be standards compliant on eight, but still have the bandwidth to innovate”.

Raising the bar

Rakuten Mobile can carry out certain auto-upgrades across its whole network in eight minutes. While devising the solution to achieve this, Atri says “We thought, ‘This can be a product where you can schedule things, they can auto-upgrade…and that’s how we think in here about automation and use cases.

“There’s a long, long journey we think about…to let the network run on its own,” but nothing daunted he adds, “The bar keeps going up. People were so happy with auto-configuration, then they want self-healing, then AI in the network to tell them everything that is happening, so we are pushing the bar every time, but there is still a lot to do.”

He concludes, “It will be very interesting to see [the impact of] AI and machine learning as we are only two or three years old as a network and there is a lot of network-related data that we are working on for other use cases such as energy saving – we are looking at how to save 30 or 40% – and customer satisfaction and customer rating…they are very important –we are spending a lot of effort and building a lot of platforms there.”

Telstra is poised for a slice of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity

Telstra Group Executive, Product & Technology, Kim Krogh Andersen talked to Contributing Editor Annie Turner about being one of the world’s most advanced telcos and the terrific potential of the 5G enterprise market.

He joined Telstra in January 2020, after almost 12 years at Telenor in various global roles, and right on the eve of the pandemic and Australia’s bushfires and droughts. He comments, “Connectivity has never been as important as it is right now with people working and studying from home. So, we have really accelerated our approach to connectivity, especially 5G, and rolled it out faster. Some of the companies that were in the middle of a digitization transformation have slowed it down but overall, I would say digital transformation disruption has been accelerated as part of the COVID-19 disruption.”

Digital twins

One of the first 5G-based enterprise use case Telstra tackled was inspired by the pandemic too. Krogh Andersen explains, “To ensure we helped our people come back after the COVID-19 lockdowns in a seamless manner, we built an application called myWorkplace which leverages Smart Spaces technology…Our whole Melbourne headquarters, which is 42 floors high, is our digital twin.

“We can use data to ensure we monitor and manage the building in the best possible way, especially with social distancing, and we can also integrate third-party data from public transport, traffic lights, and other data sets to optimise the flow in the office.”

Another example of using a digital twin is Telstra’s tower estate, “so we can always see the status of the tower equipment and do preventive maintenance, and maintenance at the most efficient rate with as little physical requirements as possible,” Krogh Andersen says.

As well as Smart Spaces for real estate, Telstra has deployed use cases in agriculture and mines. He stresses, “If I want to create 5G and Industry 4.0 use cases, I need a fully automated network that can be orchestrated. It’s why you have a dedicated, private network, it’s the only way to provide the right redundancy and automated operations.

“Orchestration is equally important as automation as you need to isolate a slice across the network, end to end, to ensure the quality of service for that specific use case. This delivers the ability to ensure service-defined slices in the network.”

Krogh Andersen gives the example of mining, Australia’s single largest sector, where autonomous trucks and tractors mean the low latency on the 5G network has to be super reliable, delivered by edge compute, and powered by AI for video analytics and digital twins, where there are immense amounts of data to consume, in real time, close to the customer.

He adds, “That’s the whole logic. It’ll be the same in healthcare during remote surgery. You cannot allow any human interaction in the process so you need end-to-end orchestration and automation. You also need redundancy and resiliency to ensure that the uptime is 100%. That’s why it’s so important that we automate the network and do this in the software world because you cannot do it in the physical world.”

Slicing for success

Telstra is in the process of implementing standalone 5G which is now available for customers, although as Krogh Andersen observes, “I expect then we will continue to evolve to be more and more advanced in the solutions and services we provide. We are already closely working with several industries, and we will scale up…It’s not something you’re [ever] done with, it will be an ongoing evolution but the majority of the enterprise value will be in these industry verticals in the future.”

He continues, “I think it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity in front of us. The next 10 years will bring a significant change in the way every industry runs operations. We will see some big changes in all industries and not only the digital ones, probably the physical ones are where we will see the biggest changes and that will offer substantial opportunity for telcos.”

One of most intractable issues here is that all industries have billions invested in legacy equipment that was never designed to function in a digital world and it will be will us for years to come. Will legacy slow or prevent the transformation progress of physical businesses?

Krogh Andersen says, “The opportunities that industries have in front of them will fundamentally transform their business systems and processes.  For telcos, we need to ensure we build slices in a connectivity-agnostic way. Some [uses cases] will need both fibre and mobile, and potentially satellite as well, and to work with more than one network operator’s infrastructure. The only way to do that is if you have APIs in common to have the network as a service (NaaS). Potentially you want to have network built on different operators and create a slice on top of them.”

He explains that for example in mining, Telstra already works with OEMs and specialist companies like Komatsu, which he says, “means everything needs to be programmable and exposed as a service so we can work in these ecosystems. For telcos that is a big transformation to expose all the capabilities in a decoupled, API-enabled way. Everything you do needs to have that decoupled architecture.”

Standards and architecture

Some GSMA and 3GPP standards, and the whole of 5G including slices, are designed for NaaS, but Krogh Andersen says, “It’s not simple to implement. It’s most important that we have a very rigid architecture because all our products need to be decoupled; we need to be able to expose them and work with third parties in ecosystems. If we use the mining industry as an example, we will potentially have our own mobile network and a fixed network plus a private network with the installation at the site and in the mines, that will include a platform linked to one or two of the cloud providers.”

Telcos and hyperscalers come from such different roots and cultures, the relationships are potentially tricky. “It’s a good question,” he says, “and potentially the biggest limitation for telcos is that we are by nature protective, instead of being on the offensive. We have prized our assets instead of product development. To collaborate with the hyperscalers, the most important aspect is that you are Agile, that you can work with speed and adaptability, have API integration and are programmable in everything you do.

“Telcos also need to have unique intellectual property and capabilities to co-develop MVPs and solutions with hyperscalers. Together, you can then go to market and approach customers on an innovative and customer-centric manner. It’s the full stack of collaboration and I believe we should embrace that collaboration.”

Krogh Anderson points out that Australia has a big enterprise market and Telstra has the network and related operations, local knowledge, managed services, professional services, Fixed and 5G leadership and the IoT software, platform and devices, but emphasises it is essential to work “in that software engineering, programmable way otherwise you’re less relevant to the hyperscalers. We also know we can’t do this alone, so we will continue to partner with technology leaders, industry bodies, educational institutes – to further educate our staff and to help create a healthy talent pipeline.”

He concludes, “Enabling the 5G standalone core through orchestration and automation across the entire network value chain, and therefore able to create service-defined experiences and use cases, with the right network experience. That is the biggest next evolution of our network and then it is about getting traction and scaled solutions into several industry verticals, like smart cities, healthcare, agriculture, retail, logistics and mining. Companies in these sectors are increasingly investing in connectivity, cloud, security and working with managed and professional services to understand and install solutions and applications enabled by edge and IoT. The potential is huge, and we – as well as most of the telco industry – are just at the start of it.”

Airtel’s network automation is as inevitable as water obeying gravity

Airtel’s CTO Randeep Sekhon and Bradley Mead of Ericsson talked to Contributing Editor Annie Turner about the urgency of their joint approach to automation.

Although Airtel has fixed infrastructure, our interview focused on its mobile network, which is of immense scale and complexity, and has been managed by Ericsson for some 16 years. The mobile network has 220,000 towers across India and almost 340 million subscribers. The operator shut its 3G network two years ago, and now runs 2G and 4G technologies on all sites. Unlike many other countries, spectrum in India is allocated in small tranches of frequencies that are not contiguous. This means towers typically have 12 radios for the different frequencies instead of the more usual three. To simplify things, each site now is single vendor – Ericsson, Nokia, Huawei or ZTE.

In the UK, the revenue per user ranges between £18 (€21) and £40, Airtel’s CTO, Randeep Sekhon, states, whereas its average revenue per user is the equivalent of £1.50, For that, Airtel’s customers get unlimited voice and texts, and 1.5GB of data daily – so in a 28-day period, a customer could consume up to 42GB, making cost to service a serious issue.

Giving it away

Since Reliance Jio launched with a 4G-only service 2016, which is gave away free for two years, India’s mobile 13 operators are reduced to four. Jio is the largest, Airtel the second biggest. VI is from the merger of Vodafone and Idea whose market share has fallen to 22% combined. The government-run BSNL has no 4G.

Furthermore, 98% of the Indian market is prepaid and many subscribers have more than one SIM. Sekhon estimates that 40% of prepaid customers switch operators at the end of every 28-day period annually which is more like rotational churn. He says, “It’s not enough to have a presence in the market, you have to be on top or your game or you suffer churn” – of epic proportions as about 650,000 Indians are connected to 4G networks.

Randeep Singh Sekhon, Chief Technology Officer, Airtel

Another issue is the country has many remote areas, so field staff often have little or no training, and switch jobs frequently. Sekhon states, “If we can replace untrained manpower with trained machines, then we will. They will make better margin, we will get better results: automation is the way to go. It is inevitable,– like water flows with gravity.”

Airtel told Ericsson it needed a different engagement and wanted “to put force into automation” when it came to contract renewal because it had close to 10,000 people involved in running the network, directly and indirectly. As it opens 20,000 to 25,000 more base sites every year, 10% or more staff were added. The escalating cost was unsustainable.

Bradley Mead, Head of Network Managed Services, Ericsson comments, “Randeep hits at the heart of why we had to create something different that we call the Ericsson Operations Engine… We started with a clean sheet of paper in late 2017…We asked ourselves and key customers if they could start up from scratch, what would processes look like? What capabilities do we need to invest in? What should future capabilities and people’s skill sets be?”

Sekhon notes, “There is serious investment in acquiring platforms…instead of extracting data through files, manually crunching data, then doing script files…you need to API-ify your network, put in a data lake and run your intelligence layers on top… you cannot run networks with traditional OSS tools and key performance indicators (KPIs).” Instead of using KPIs, Airtel uses customers’ complaints as its performance metric, monitoring their trends. He explains that complaints cannot be gamed, unlike other measurements.

We are paranoid,” he adds wryly. “You need to elevate yourself to a different level of customer experience – every mobile phone is a sensor, it sends you rich information, you pull it together, which creates petabytes of data, then start correlating it. This is where the [automation] journey started – we brought all this into a data lake and exposed all the tools we have to Ericsson: that means all of what my engineers use, they can use and all of what they do, they expose to us. If we need this correlated data for my internal use case, the brutal transparency we have in terms of trust [ensures that] we are both meaning the same thing.”

Mead credits this “brutal transparency” with enabling them to improve performance on many levels one example being reducing mean time to repair by 24%.

Bradley Mead, Head of Network Managed Services, Ericsson

Operations

Sekhon says there are four domains in which Airtel wants to apply automation. The most important is operations. Machine learning has helped apply data correlation to alarms. The ultimate aim is automatic resolution of the issue without human involvement using closed loop. More use cases are identified and developed all the time so more events can be handled this way.

Sekhon muses, “We’re not there in artificial intelligence yet, but we have lots of machine learning use cases. Cognitive [AI] is a little far away [for us] even so, machine learning is giving us correlations, which we would not otherwise see.”

Mead adds, “We’ve doubled the amount of automation in the past two years so now 69% of all alarms are automatically correlated and resolved without human intervention. Another 13 or 14% are semi-automated, and the rest still require a human managing the process.”

The next target is to become more proactive, rather than reactive, and focus on performance moving  from being green to amber, where customers might experience some  mild impacted, and from there to red when they really see and  feel significant performance impact. The next step is predictive actions where we can actually prevent incidents. “Predictive is where we really want to be paired with closed loop automation– then you’re really hands off,” Sekhon says.

Mead says, “That’s where we’re really focusing our efforts and investments right now. And we’re starting to see real examples…We can predict when a cell is likely to ‘go to sleep”. This doesn’t trigger an alarm. Also if the network is about to suffer reduced data throughput, says, then dynamically rebalancing some traffic for a short period of time, all done automatically in a closed.

Mead adds, “These are the things we’re working on…Event-based processes will always need to be there but what will proactive and your predictive processes look like? They are fundamentally different to the world we grew up in which is a very exciting journey.”

Network quality and planning

Optimisations fixed by closed loop are in the minority, but this is growing and even with partial automation, the field worker despatched to fix the problem has information about the problem.

Network planning is super important. Sekhon explains, “We run every site like a shop – it has to make money, so you have to plan and place it right.” Decisions about where to build new sites are from diverse sets of data, including counting the number of roofs in the area that would be covered, to white goods deliveries to the area, banking information, and data about schools and post offices. They are correlated to check the site will contribute the minimum threshold revenue.

“Investing in capacity should be it should be just in time: people should not suffer congestion but put capacity in early and you’re wasting money.”

Deployment

Airtel is keen to reduce human error in deployments through zero-touch deployments. Workers currently send pictures to the sub-contractors. Sekhon says, “We are slowly moving to machine read the pictures to check the installation”.

He sums up, “Operations, network quality, planning and deployment – the cycle has started and we are moving from reactive to proactive and predictive. India doesn’t have 5G yet but we can use this same intelligence and morph it up for early 5G investments…which will be much higher investment than in the past. We also use all this in our fixed line networks for fibre planning and operations.

“We make big investments in these tools, but they are not they’re not very expensive compared to the investments we make in networks, so we feel the business case holds”. This includes running the network at 8% greater loading since the work began. As Sekhon says, “You can milk your assets much more through investment in automation with the right skilled people…and this is what Ericsson brings to table.”

Mead observes, “People need to be highly skilled – technically competent in technology domains but also with skills in data engineering and data science be able to work with automations. Automations and networks don’t stand still: they and the machine-learning algorithms need to be constantly lifecycle managed and tuned.”

Sekhon wants Ericsson to share more of its knowledge and experience gleaned from working with so many operators who are broadly addressing the same issues: “Of course it’s a commercial business but Ericsson can share best practices, play an anchor role here in some way like open communities because if I give, I’ll get something back”.

He is optimistic about the potential of telecoms to do great social good, especially since the pandemic demonstrated how much can be achieved remotely and suggests perhaps children in remote areas could benefit from high quality teaching, for instance.

Mead says of the pandemic, “If we hadn’t begun the automation journey some years ago, we would have had a very different challenge to manage over the past year…the automation efforts have really paid off, but it’s also shown us that we can work more flexibly and still collaborate which again is exciting for the future” – particularly as the era of 5G and network slicing in imminent.

Randeep Sekhon and Bradley Meadkey and taking part in the ‘Managing the networks of the future: How to leverage AI and automation’ panel session at the FutureNet World virtual event on the 20/21 April – register here