Sponsored By

Orange is building a network that will run itself

In Lannion in northwest France, Orange has begun trying out 'zero-touch' systems that could serve as a blueprint for its future networks.

Iain Morris

June 30, 2021

11 Min Read
Orange is building a network that will run itself

Lannion in the northwest of France seems an unlikely place for state-of-the-art technology.

Look it up on Google Images and the views are of narrow, timber-framed homes with pointy roofs, huddled together for tourist photos on ancient streets. But the town in Brittany also hosts a telecom research center used by the likes of Orange, Nokia and Sagemcom.

In the next few days, it will become a testbed for one of the most advanced telecom networks on the planet.

Built by Orange, the "digital twin," as the French operator likes to call it, will be designed as much as possible to manage and run itself.

Industry expressions such as "zero touch" and "closed-loop automation" denote the absence of people who would ordinarily carry out system checks and fix problems. Artificial intelligence (AI) and the individuals who can tame it are their replacements. Codenamed Pikeo, it is a blueprint for the networks of the future.

There is a long checklist of technologies that Orange plans to debut in Lannion, starting with a "standalone" 5G core network developed by US-based Casa Systems.

This standalone variant of 5G would sever the ties to 4G and allow 5G to exist independently. It promises better support for advanced 5G features such as network slicing, allowing an operator to guarantee different types of service on the same platform.

Figure 1: At first glance, Lannion in northwest France does not look very hi-tech. At first glance, Lannion in northwest France does not look very hi-tech.

By combining this new core with AI, the system – Orange hopes – will be able to automatically carve out new slices in "real time," depending on the performance needs it detects. This means it could instantly adapt to whatever new services emerge.

Casa's technology, meanwhile, could also be hosted in Google's public cloud for additional benefits, said the software company earlier this month.

For what Orange calls "subscriber data management," Orange is turning to HPE and its cloud-based technology. Dell is to provide hardware infrastructure (servers) running Orange's virtualized network functions, while Israel's Amdocs will have responsibility for business support systems. China's Xiaomi has been identified as a provider of end-user devices.

Open source also has a role in Pikeo, with Orange set to use ONAP – a platform now managed by the Linux Foundation – for automating various backend systems.

And no futuristic network project would be complete without reference to open RAN, an attempt to virtualize software, commoditize hardware and end telco reliance on giant vendors in the mobile network. Orange has named Mavenir as the company that will provide open RAN software in Lannion.

The ethics of AI

Set to run over a two-year period, the project will start with about 50 users, before ramping up to encompass hundreds by the end of this year.

One of Orange's main goals is to figure out what the benefits of such extreme automation are from both a customer and an organizational perspective.

But it will also be testing and developing tools and systems that have never been used at scale in a brownfield network. And the use of so many different players will force it to become an expert at systems integration.

All this entails massive change for Orange and its technical staff, says Michael Trabbia, the operator's chief technology officer.

"The technology will be very different from what we have known in the telco industry, and we need to get prepared and have our experts getting used to this future technology," he tells reporters on a call.

As "zero touch" implies, there will eventually be little need for many of the employees who have filled traditional technical roles.

"The supervision team is handling tickets and alarms and the first step is to automate how we treat those tickets," says Trabbia.

"The vision is that the teams in charge of operations will rather be AI experts who will improve algorithms rather than manage tickets."

Missing out on MWC? Catch up on the latest from Mobile World Congress 2021 in Barcelona on our dedicated content channel here on
Light Reading.

This raises all sorts of ethical questions that Orange will need to consider as it deploys systems in Lannion. If AI-run telecom networks become so complicated that people would not even be capable of managing them, could a human technician feasibly step into the breach of a systems failure?

"As you give the network to algorithms, you have to be sure about the IT architecture around that," says Elisabeth Py, Orange's project manager in Lannion. One thing she hopes to learn as she automates operations is where humans will "fit."

Despite the implications for staff, Trabbia and Py insist that Orange will continue to need people with network skills, as well as new IT experts.

"We will try to see what we need tomorrow to build and operate such a network, but we will put together the best expertise on networks and IT," says Py.

Slimline operations

The million-dollar, unanswered question is how big the technical workforce would need to be, alongside today's, to run a mass-market network built on Pikeo principles. In all likelihood, Orange will need relatively few AI experts compared with the number of people it employs today to check tickets and look after technical operations.

Automation and the use of Internet platforms are already acknowledged to have claimed thousands of jobs in the telecom sector.</ p>

A striking example comes from Vodafone, which said in late 2019 that its "zero touch" network operations centers (NOCs) would need only "a very small number of people" in the next five to seven years, down from the 1,500 that its NOCs have previously employed.

That revelation came months after Three, a UK rival to Vodafone, said that moving IT systems to the public cloud would allow it to cut two thirds of all technical jobs at the company, or between 700 and 800.

Overall staff numbers across major Western operators have fallen dramatically in the last few years.

According to a database maintained by Light Reading, which profiles the 20 largest operators by sales with headquarters in Europe or the Americas, about 230,000 jobs have disappeared at those companies since 2015, some 12% of the total. At Orange, headcount has dropped by roughly 14,000 jobs since 2015, to 142,150 at the end of last year.

2015

2016

2017

2018

2019

2020

America Movil

195,475

194,193

191,851

189,448

191,523

186,851

AT&T

281,450

268,540

280,000

268,220

247,800

230,760

BCE

49,968

48,090

51,679

52,790

52,100

50,704

BT

102,500

106,416

105,787

106,742

105,344

99,741

CenturyLink

43,000

40,000

51,000

45,000

42,500

39,000

Deutsche Telekom

225,243

218,341

217,349

215,675

210,533

226,291

-T-Mobile US

50,000

50,000

51,000

52,000

53,000

75,000

KPN

14,078

13,530

13,275

12,431

11,248

10,102

Level 3

12,500

12,600

0

0

0

0

Millicom

15,956

17,985

19,127

21,403

22,375

21,419

Orange

156,191

155,202

151,556

150,711

146,768

142,150

Proximus

14,090

13,633

13,391

13,385

12,931

11,423

Rogers Communications

26,200

25,200

24,500

26,100

25,300

23,500

Sprint

30,000

28,000

30,000

28,500

27,000

0

Swisscom

21,637

21,127

20,506

19,845

19,317

19,062

Telecom Italia

65,867

61,229

59,429

57,901

55,198

52,347

Telefonica

137,506

127,323

122,718

121,853

117,347

113,182

Telenor

38,000

37,000

30,800

20,832

20,044

18,000

Telia

26,895

26,017

25,021

20,836

21,232

20,741

Telus

47,700

51,300

53,600

58,000

65,600

78,100

VEON

52,321

41,994

39,938

46,132

46,492

43,639

Verizon

177,700

160,900

155,400

144,500

135,000

132,200

Vodafone

111,684

111,556

106,135

98,996

95,219

96,506

Source: Companies, SEC filings. Notes: End-of-year figures were used unless unavailable, in which case year-average numbers were used; Level 3 was acquired by CenturyLink in 2017; T-Mobile and Sprint merged in April 2020.

Danielle Royston of Telco DR, a consulting firm and investor in cloud software companies, thinks headcount in the sector could ultimately drop by as much as 75%.

"All the tools within telcos today are built with the assumption there is a person driving the keyboard, and yet there are machine-learning tools that make more intelligent recommendations than the humans do," she says. "You just need less people."

The best model for Trabbia so far appears to be Rakuten, a Japanese ecommerce firm using a mixture of cloud and software technologies to build its country's fourth mobile network.

That may frighten staff. In March last year, Tareq Amin, the chief technology officer of Rakuten Mobile, told Light Reading his entire operations team comprised just 175 employees and would never exceed 350. His competitors employ thousands in this area, he said.

While Lannion is the immediate priority, Orange plans to extend Pikeo into other locations in France starting in 2022. Other countries may soon follow. It will be years before Pikeo enters commercial operation. But any technical staff determined to keep their jobs might want to start brushing up on AI.

Related posts:

— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading

Read more about:

Europe

About the Author(s)

Iain Morris

International Editor, Light Reading

Iain Morris joined Light Reading as News Editor at the start of 2015 -- and we mean, right at the start. His friends and family were still singing Auld Lang Syne as Iain started sourcing New Year's Eve UK mobile network congestion statistics. Prior to boosting Light Reading's UK-based editorial team numbers (he is based in London, south of the river), Iain was a successful freelance writer and editor who had been covering the telecoms sector for the past 15 years. His work has appeared in publications including The Economist (classy!) and The Observer, besides a variety of trade and business journals. He was previously the lead telecoms analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, and before that worked as a features editor at Telecommunications magazine. Iain started out in telecoms as an editor at consulting and market-research company Analysys (now Analysys Mason).

Subscribe and receive the latest news from the industry.
Join 62,000+ members. Yes it's completely free.

You May Also Like