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Is AI coming for your telco job?

As telecom operators and technology companies adopt new technologies, the question lingers: Will AI and network automation take my job next?

7 Min Read
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AI is changing everything. But will it take your telco job? It might, but even if it doesn't, it could change how your job is performed.

Understanding why it's not a simple yes or no requires a closer look at telecom service provider plans for generative AI. Generative AI has tremendous transformative power, and that's already causing concern. 

Coursera chairman and Stanford professor Andrew Ng warned in 2016 that technology leaders needed to weigh ethical concerns carefully as AI's capabilities grew. Bias was among Ng's primary worries, and the recent acceleration of generative AI makes that issue even more urgent.

Ng was also concerned about AI's impact on jobs: "Yet the biggest harm that AI is likely to do to individuals in the short term is job displacement, as the amount of work we can automate with AI is vastly bigger than before." 

Telecom network operators will certainly use generative AI capabilities to reduce their workforce. 

A workforce in flux

One example from this year is BT's former CEO, Philip Jansen. In May, Jansen said the company has "filed more AI patents than anybody else in the UK." Integrating AI with cable deployment and network automation would lead to significant gains in "efficiency and cost," he said, and make it possible to eliminate a significant number of employees. 

"The UK telco currently employs about 130,000 people, including precisely 97,148 full-time workers and a bunch of contractors. By the end of the decade, somewhere between 40,000 and 55,000 of these jobs will have disappeared," wrote Light Reading's Iain Morris

Increasing efficiency is necessary for telecoms now; the sector is in a tough situation after the much-hyped lift of 5G networks has fallen short of expectations. Jansen announced this summer that he would be leaving BT. Shortly after that, top telecom equipment suppliers Ericsson and Nokia announced they would cut as many as 22,500 jobs between them.

While the coming job cuts offer a grim outlook for telecom jobs, it's not as dire as it sounds. Jansen, for example, was never going to cut tens of thousands of jobs in one fell swoop; he planned to maintain an attrition rate of about 5,000 a year. As large network builds are complete and more desk jobs and support functions are automated, telcos like BT won't need as many workers. 

That said, telecom operators are looking to increase their spending on AI, and they do need people who can manage the AI rollouts and applications. Given the relative newness of generative AI technology, there aren't many people around who have extensive experience with it. And they will be in great demand. Consequently, increased demand and spending for AI in the telecom sector will create new career opportunities. 

Telcos keen to invest in AI

Aware of its tremendous potential to drive greater efficiencies for the industry, telecom operators seem eager to find use cases for AI. The Telecommunications Generative AI Study, produced by AWS in partnership with Altman Solon, surveyed 102 senior business leaders in Communication Service Providers (CSPs). 

According to the survey, it is still early for adoption as only 21% in North America and even fewer in other areas have started applying generative AI. However, that number is expected to more than double to 48% within just two years. CSPs expect to increase their AI spending from under 1% today to 2-6% of their technology budget as they discover new ways to put generative AI to use.

Some telecoms are even pooling their resources to streamline development and reduce the cost of AI development. For example, SK Telecom and Deutsche Telekom announced a partnership to jointly develop telco-specific large learning models (LLM) that they aim to introduce in the first quarter of 2024. 

This LLM will be trained to understand telecommunication service-related domains to more effectively respond to and anticipate customer issues across Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. SK Telecom hasn't been shy about its enthusiasm for AI; the telco said in November 2022 that AI is a key part of its strategy. 

What jobs are at risk?

According to Omdia, which looked at the Artificial Intelligence Occupation Exposure (AIOE) scores with the US Bureau of Labor Statistics workforce composition and average annual pay rate data, some broad functional areas will be exposed to AI as telcos start making use of the technology in different parts of their business.

These include: 

  • IT (Computer and Mathematical Occupations)

  • Customer service (Personal Care and Service Occupations)

  • Management (Management Occupations)

  • Financial administration (Business and Financial Operations Occupations)

According to Omdia, these four functions represent approximately 50% of the workforce and 60% of the payroll. In other words, thousands of jobs will be affected, but not all at once, and some jobs will be shaped around AI as an efficiency tool rather than a like-for-like replacement.

From other Omdia surveys, it's clear that telcos are moving into AI adoption at about the same rate as other enterprises. IBM's CEO Arvind Krishna reportedly announced a hiring freeze while speculating that AI could replace 7,800 jobs in the next few years. And that's happening at an IT powerhouse that was among the first to embrace AI for enterprise applications.

Across the telco sector, network operators cut thousands of jobs a year thanks to various forms of automation, completed network buildouts and other tech efficiency gains. "While several of the big telcos tracked by Light Reading have yet to publish figures for the recent fiscal year (ending in either December or March), the exodus of staff continued at most others, whose collective headcount fell nearly 58,000 last year. Across AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon, the big three of the US mobile market, around 45,000 jobs disappeared in 2022, more than 11% of the end-2021 total," wrote Light Reading in May.

AI could speed up some telco-related job cuts, but the largest network operators, fully enmeshed in digital transformation, are already trimming their ranks briskly. What remains to be seen is how AI will be incorporated into existing jobs. AI could, as an example frequently cited by IBM, allow for customer service agents to provide more personalized answers to customer problems, solving complex issues quickly and reducing the need for in-store visits, additional phone calls and customer churn. 

As IBM explained: "Generative AI tools bolster operational efficiency by searching extensive repositories of documentation, CRM systems, and call transcriptions to feed contact center agents answers in real time, helping them solve complex customer issues."

How quickly those affected telco jobs evolve will depend on the investments made and the willingness of senior management to enhance their workforce, as opposed to getting rid of it. Regarding the recent SK Telecom collaboration, Deutsche Telekom board member Claudia Nemat said: "AI shows impressive potential to significantly enhance human problem-solving capabilities. To maximize its use, especially in customer service, we need to adapt existing large language models and train them with our unique data. This will elevate our generative AI tools."
On her LinkedIn account, when discussing a 5G campus network deployment, Nemat marveled at the possibilities unlocked in health care by augmented reality, AI and other cutting-edge tech – all made more useful when backed by low-latency wireless connections. "My conviction: Humans must be at the center of every technology development," she wrote.

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About the Author(s)

Phil Harvey

Editor-in-Chief, Light Reading

Phil Harvey has been a Light Reading writer and editor for more than 18 years combined. He began his second tour as the site's chief editor in April 2020.

His interest in speed and scale means he often covers optical networking and the foundational technologies powering the modern Internet.

Harvey covered networking, Internet infrastructure and dot-com mania in the late 90s for Silicon Valley magazines like UPSIDE and Red Herring before joining Light Reading (for the first time) in late 2000.

After moving to the Republic of Texas, Harvey spent eight years as a contributing tech writer for D CEO magazine, producing columns about tech advances in everything from supercomputing to cellphone recycling.

Harvey is an avid photographer and camera collector – if you accept that compulsive shopping and "collecting" are the same.

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