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Data Sharing Key to AT&T's AI Push

Sarah Thomas

SDN, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) are all making a big difference in AT&T's network operations, but what has been the biggest game changer for the communication service provider is really a lot simpler than that -- learning how to share data.

While the algorithms have greatly improved over the years, the real challenge of AI and ML -- technologies that underpin AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T)'s software-defined network -- was gaining access to the right data and having the ability to act on it, according to Chris Volinsky, AT&T's assistant vice president of Big Data Research. He says that necessitated a change in culture at AT&T to one that was powered by data and in which silos between divisions came down to allow for data sharing. (See AI Key to Telcos' Digital Transformation – Survey and SDN + AI: A Powerful Combo for Better Networks.)

"With the big-data revolution over the last five years, enterprises in AT&T realize the value of unlocking data and making it available for analysis," he says. "In my early career, I had to beat down doors for access to data. It'd take months of escalations. Now there's a real data-powered culture in the company whereby people realize the value in letting others have access to data and the benefit to the company's efficiency and customer experience."

He calls this the perfect storm of having more data to analyze, improved algorithms to analyze it and an increased ability to act on it. Volinsky is referring to AT&T's end customers opting in to share data, but more so to what's going on internally. AT&T has to have a data-driven justification for every business decision it makes. That means it needs its entire staff to be able to analyze data. Volinsky says this has required both an internal shift in mindset and more training of its employees to make everyone a data scientist.

"In order to get value out of large data sets, you had to hire a statistician from [AT&T] Labs to consult," he says. "Now, so many more people in the company have expertise through skills pivot or AT&T university that the people with subject expertise can analyze their own data. The work is being distributed around company to accelerate the learning we can get."

For more on big data analysis and artificial intelligence, visit the dedicated analytics content page here on Light Reading.

The willingness to share data across business divisions is also a relatively new phenomenon. Volinsky says it's been a slow cultural change over the past five to ten years, but it's accelerated in the last three to four driven by the move to open source.

While many in the industry have mixed feelings on open source, AT&T has embraced it and actively contributes and draws from the open-source community. The mindset also extends to its internal use of data, Volinsky says. "There's a general culture and understanding that it's worthwhile to open your data to have others explore, join with their data set, add value to it and weigh in on how to analyze it," he adds. (See AT&T's Chris Rice on Open Source & Standards, OPNFV Summit Comes at Critical Time, AT&T's Donovan: Resistance to Change Is Futile and Open Source an 'Overrated Necessity,' Says PCCW.)

Coupled with SDN, AT&T is able to use the data it collects from networks in real time to automate network processes, self-correct network problems and detect anomalies in the network before they affect the end user. One example he offers is a proactive care model that AT&T built for its U-verse customers. By analyzing customer data, AT&T learned that many of the customers were calling in about problems that could be solved by rebooting their modems. Its employees began using the algorithms to predict where problems might arise and reboot those modems overnight as to not impact service. Volinsky says they had 30% fewer calls into customer care and 30% fewer dispatches needed the following month.

"Every call to care that we prevent saves a certain amount of money," he says. "Every time we prevent a truck roll, that saves money. These are real benefits that are gotten through smart data science."

— Sarah Thomas, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profile, Director, Women in Comms

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Sarah Thomas
Sarah Thomas,
User Rank: Blogger
6/19/2017 | 1:51:48 PM
Re: adapt or die?
That's interesting, SystemsE12915. Do you find you can't reach upper-level management to discuss the issues, they aren't open to it, are focused elsewhere or the company is too bureaucratic to change it's culture? Or are they actually opposed to virtualization and analytics? That seems so shortsighted, especially if your customer base is the CSPs! 
User Rank: Light Beer
6/19/2017 | 1:09:12 PM
Re: adapt or die?

I agree 1000% with your comment.  The problem is that the initiative starts at the top in most companies instead of having it start with the people who actually are the most familiar with the equipment and data.  I have been shouting about the use of Predictive Analytics in Maintenance for awhile now with no indication that anybody is listening.

A single candle in the dark cannot light an ocean at night.  Getting the darkness lifted is hard when nobody listens.  I am not sure that my company can adapt in time as they barely have started with virtualization, let alone, Predictive Analytics...and heaven forbid the start looking at AI.....and we supply AT&T with solutions!
Sarah Thomas
Sarah Thomas,
User Rank: Blogger
6/16/2017 | 10:36:31 AM
adapt or die?
One thing you'll hear in common behind every tech advancement is the cultural transformation that was required to take advantage of it. I think that's interesting that that transformation is often the hardest part, not the tech. These are big, legacy companies trying to keep up. The successful ones are the ones that can adapt. AT&T seems to get that, echoed by John Donovan's comments at BCE as well. 
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