Ken Tan, CTO of Digital Nasional Berhad (DNB), talks to Contributing Editor, Annie Turner, as part of the Ericsson Data Driven Transformation series.
As the world is racing towards an all-connected era, powered by technologies like 5G, IoT and concepts like Industry 4.0, reliable, secure and robust connectivity are imperative. Telecom networks increasingly serve as the backbone for all digital society placing new demands on operations. In our blog post series, we will embark on 5 data-driven transformation journeys with customers and Ericsson experts to address some the tangible benefits of data-driven operations in action.
Nope, this is not going to be a biophysics blog post, but I like to think of telecom networks as a living organism that follows the natural tendency of things to get more complicated. The second law of thermodynamics states that the degree of disorder or randomness (entropy) of a closed system will never decrease. In the long run, nothing escapes this fundamental law of universe and networks aren’t the exemption. Like many other ’organisms’ in the telecom ecosystem, they need to constantly address the intensifying complexity of operations driven by the increasing volume of devices, multiple new technologies, and more diverse service requirements.
As the possibilities multiply unlocking new monetization opportunities across enterprise and consumer segments, the need for communication services providers (CSPs) to transform their operations is not even open to debate. To add people around legacy processes is not sufficient to deliver the needed volume and speed of change. A new look at data is the foundation, but CSPs are uncertain on how to go about this transformation spanning beyond data & automation into multiple other dimensions across organization, competence, processes and governance.
The recurrent dilemma: To outsource or not to outsource
The real challenge lies in how to get there. Experience shows that it can be tricky for long-established CSPs (and service partners) to strike a balance between the operational consistency of ongoing legacy business and developing a new mindset. Success demands a profound cultural shift within traditional organizations, requiring teams that are historically focused on precision to embrace speed and incremental development, underpinned by an agile mindset of fail fast and succeed faster.
For some, relying on a partner to operate and transform their network operations with guaranteed business outcomes is the most attractive option – considering current macro-economic trends with increasing inflation rates and rising energy prices – than doing it by themselves. When you engage in an outsourcing model predictability is high, both in terms of committed service levels and cost, over the next three to five years. Risk is also low, as an experienced partner delivers the transformation faster and carries the risk change as well as associated with initial investments. A solid partner invests in key technologies like cloud-native and artificial intelligence (AI), to stay relevant into the future while delivering today with a solid track record of field-validated results.
In data we trust…
The essence of the data-driven transformation of operations is the shift from the traditional network resource management model, based on a reactive incident-centric approach, into a new approach that revolves around turning data into predictions.
Model adoption, however, is, no guarantee of success. Being clear about the vision of the transformation and having tangible and measurable business outcomes are practically even more important.
Data-driven operations transformation main benefits:
- Highest network performance. Network stability is the foundation of good user experience, which can translate to a 15 percent ARPU increase for frontrunner CSPs.
- Lowest total cost of ownership (TCO). By optimizing the incident management in the NOC, data-driven operations are able to notably reduce the volume of work orders and site visits, focus the field force with surgical precision and resolve issues much faster from a remote location.
- Best customer experience. Together with the improved performance contributes to a better quality overall experienced by the subscriber and is reflected by a notable reduction in customer complaints related to network or service quality.
- Less energy consumption. Leverages AI and advanced data analytics to optimize energy consumption across network infrastructure for CSPs, while also reducing site visits and curbing CO2 emissions.
- Highest security standards. With 5G increasingly turning mobile networks into a backbone of the digital society, telco-specialized security expertise is paramount for preventing, simplifying handling and accelerating remediation of incidents.
Field-measured data from 20 CSPs transformation journeys powered by Ericsson Operations Engine between Q1, 2019 and Q4,2022 clearly answers our initial question: “Data-driven operations: Does it pay off?” Yes, it does, and it has a significant impact on CSPs operations business outcomes.
From a network performance perspective, data-driven operations reduce network unavailability by 34 percent while decreasing customer complaints by 21 percent. On the network efficiency side, the transformation led to a significant 12 percent reduction of work orders (WO) and 24 percent less truck rolls per node which had an important impact on CO2 emissions.
Data-driven infrastructure delivers 5G to six national operators in six months
The chief technological officer of Digital Nasional Berhad (DNB) Ken Tan, and his team, worked with Ericsson to launch Malaysia’s 5G infrastructure – just nine months after DNB was set up!
DNB is a special-purpose vehicle company, owned by the Ministry of Finance Malaysia. It was established in March 2021 to drive the development and adoption of 5G services in the country, offering its 5G network on a wholesale basis to the six established telecom service providers.
Tan says the pandemic highlighted the importance of digital connectivity globally:
“In Malaysia we have a digital divide we need to bridge so that connectivity is accessible to all – it has become a basic need. DNB was set up to accelerate building that bridge. It is a great ambition.”
He continues, “5G will deliver the next step change not just for the mobile industry, but the whole country, to transform it into a digital economy riding on the Industrial Revolution 4.0. DNB is set up for that purpose with policies to ensure that 5G connectivity is affordable…to all and to make it a commodity in the market that should transform and accelerate innovation for society.”
Malaysia’s 5G services are perhaps the cheapest in the world, costing the same or less than 4G. The government estimates 5G will deliver MYR650 billion (about $139.845 billion or €140.356 billion) in additional gross domestic product (GDP) for the economy by 2030. With so much riding on DNB’s success, the tender process for selecting partners was stringent, with three key criteria regarding the technical, commercial and socio-economic benefits for the nation. Ericsson was found to be first in each category after scrutiny by an expert panel drawn from around the globe.
An ambitious approach
DNB’s approach was ambitious and unique – to provide 5G infrastructure by the end of 2021, although the tender was only concluded in July.
“Also, the multi-operator core network has to support up to six other service providers’ cores that could contain components from any vendor,” Tan points out. “This not proven anywhere in the world, especially for 5G which is so new.”
Given this extraordinarily tight timeline, “I thought the managed services offered by Ericsson are great, because rather than DNB build up its own operations teams to manage the network it built, we can leverage the managed service team from Ericsson, and that global scale of expertise that Ericsson has, to help us to run the network in the shortest time frame it could be ramped up,” Tan says.
He adds, “We’ve introduced a lot of new technologies to make the network as efficient as possible, adopting the principles of an autonomous network and zero touch. When the managed service requirements came in during the tender, all of these things were incorporated.”
That determination to embrace autonomy, enabled by AI including machine learning, also allows DNB to introduce new skill sets to the nation: “When we introduce new AI and machine learning technologies, we need fewer people to run the network. This is not a bad thing because then we help transform those with a low skill set into highly skilled operations teams – including their income. Instead of people physically going out [to fix or install things], we turn them to programming applications or software.”
DNB built the first 5G site on 10 October 2021, then the live production connected to six of the operators’ 4G networks on 10 November, followed by a soft launch with one of the operators in December.
“In that sort of timeframe, it had to be zero touch: the team was able to build up the NOC/SOC, not just the tools, but set up the whole process, escalation procedures and the operations within that really, really strict timeline. It gives us visibility of how the NOC is run, any issues and how to react. It’s a managed production network that we’re not running blind,” Tan explains.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of being data driven in this regard. “With data comes insights which mean you know what’s happening inside the network. Having those insights is a cycle: you apply remedies to ensure things are improved, then add more data to see that the improvements you make pay off, or if not, we can take the necessary action. We monitor growth into a seamless cycle, continuously driven.”
This is particularly important and no small undertaking as DNB is both a greenfield and brownfield operation. The new 5G infrastructure has to interoperate with the core of other operators’ networks, but Tan says that this complexity was embraced on day one, led by the Ericsson Managed Services team, which understood the challenge.
Tan observes, “Everyone operates [networks] on the grounds that you’re ‘innocent’ until proven ‘guilty’ [that is, fault is attributed based on evidence] but here in this set-up, you’re guilty until you prove your innocence.” This means the whole team needs to be proactive, always on the ball to be ahead of the game and the curve; to manage and capture issues before they become a problem for the mobile operators in the market. Prevention is always better than treatment.
“That’s the mindset and that’s how the team went about building the tools and how it uses the technologies like data and machine learning to automate all the processes and ensure they have visibility of how to prevent issues.” It has also delivered spectacular results: DNB started with 500 sites in November 2021 and had about 320,000 alarms per day. By August 2022, with the same size team, the alarms had reduced to 1,200 per day with over 2,000 sites live.
The operations brain
At the heart of DNB’s operations is the – a central platform which contains all the tools the teams need. It applies processes to data applications and manages how they operate and run the networks. The tools are managed centrally, dealing, for example, with software upgrades and swapping out bugs, relieving engineers of that responsibility: they simply log into the platform to access the tools.
Tan calls the Ericsson Operations Engine “the brain that allows people to work and program”. With those tools in place, people can use [the engine] to introduce the machine learning data, the value add and manage the network so that it is becoming a programmable network, run by software. Without these capabilities, we’d have to revert to old ways of running networks. Now you can centralize all of it with the NOC/SOC in one place.
The manual processes of logging into different components and network elements in the systems are gone. The data logs process and analyze data. Tan says, “When you multiply that by the number of sites and pieces of equipment, and especially equipment that is not within your control, you really have to automate the process. Then all information can be provided in real time for analysis, and you get that sort of capability [whereby] the team can react in close to real time, rather than days and days later, to apply the treatment. That sort of transformation is how to prove your ‘innocence’ from day one.”
“DNB provides radio-as-a-service to six operators and when you get that service to them, they’re all part of one team, but now you’ve got another entity – Ericsson Managed Services – running the radio network for you and they need to gain the trust of their counterparts in each of these operators. Trust is not won through ‘Oh, here’s the data’; it’s more about providing self-serving capabilities to those operators and that’s what the Managed Services team have to do so they are part of the team.”
He elaborates, “It’s more than just providing data, it’s making those six operators part of the process including the escalation process, part of the day-to-day running of the analysis, being integrated into one team. The complexity comes once you integrate six other, different teams, but somehow this managed service team is able to manage all these things in parallel.”
Caring for your customers’ customers
Tan believes the most critical part of his job is enabling his operator customers to provide the best and most affordable 5G service to their customers. He comments, “If you have no issues, everything’s working fine, and the six mobile operators don’t complain, and if we can manage issues all the way to the end customers seamlessly, that’s the ultimate goal. We’re going to continuously upgrade the networks to support all the new features and capabilities for 5G and all the other use cases, plus the complexity that will come in.
He concludes, “Hence automations will continuously learn and improve to make sure we free up the people to do the high end, high value sorts of process and get jobs right…avoiding repetitive, mundane jobs. If people are engaged, they love what they’re doing, it’s a repetitive cycle, trying to find out how to keep improving and do more and more.“
To sum up, Tan says: “To me, that’s a win for all!”
Interviewed CSP: Ken Tan, Chief Technology Officer, DNB
Ken Tan has more than 20 years of work experience in the telecommunications industry and has successfully delivered on network and IT transformation programs. He was a key member of the Senior Leadership team that deployed the world’s first 5G Fixed Wireless Access Network and Australia’s Mobile Speed Leadership. His most recent role was Head/VP of Digital Networks with Singtel Optus. Leaders of DNB (Digital Nasional Berhad)
This article was originally published on the Ericsson website here on the 22nd of November 2022.