AI investment in telecom networks is finally starting to catch up with the hype. This was one of the conclusions from a new report from analyst firm and Light Reading sister company Omdia, "2021 Trends to Watch: Telecoms Operations and IT."
According to Omdia's research, nearly 80% of service providers see the use of AI and analytics, when it comes to the automation of network activities, as an "important" or "very important" IT project for 2021. Nearly 60% of them are planning to increase investment in AI tools.
Automation of service fulfillment and assurance and creating highly prized "closed loops" – where the need for human intervention is minimal – are usually seen as some of the main drivers for AI investment, as a way to improve operational efficiencies.
In fact, among CIOs and CTIOs, automating network and service management processes is considered the most important OSS project over the next 18 months.
Top AI use cases, said Omdia, are expected to include network fault prediction and prevention, automation of end-to-end lifecycle management, and the management of 5G network slicing.
Given that the range of use cases is growing fast, Kris Szaniawski, Omdia's practice leader at service provider transformation, thought that Telefonica CTIO's Enrique Blanco will soon not be alone in claiming that "we are building a new operating model using AI capabilities."
Automation for the core, RAN, 5G...
As networks become more complex and services trickier to manage – new 5G cores, edge computing and network slicing are obvious examples – Omdia emphasized that automation was becoming critical.
"Cloud-native and distributed cloud architectures and the growing importance of the network edge are adding to the complexity," added Szaniawski.
"AI is increasingly needed because existing operations are too reactive and rely heavily on human operators to execute functions."
Szaniawski's views chime with those of Alex Choi, head of strategy & technology innovation at Deutsche Telekom.
Speaking on a recent webinar hosted by the Open Network Foundation, and with an eye on delivering 5G services, Choi emphasized that telcos must have orchestration control across diverse network components, including the RAN, the core and the cloud.
"To manage all these elements together," he said, "network automation is the only possible way."
Omdia's report warned, however, that service providers needed to look beyond performance monitoring AI use cases.
Utilizing AI to perform closed loop automation, argued Szaniawski, presents a much bigger opportunity to transform RAN and core operations into something more proactive.
Moreover, it is essential to prioritize AI initiatives that are likely to deliver a decent ROI, such as those already closely aligned with new revenue areas associated with 5G or already being explored on 4G.
... and the people
Proactive customer care, where potentially troublesome issues are spotted and fixed before they become a problem, rather than the reactive way of trying to tackle problems for disgruntled customers after the fact, is another way for AI to earn its corn.
"In current stressful circumstances, service providers that provide a fragmented customer experience will be quickly punished," warned Szaniawski, who noted that progress toward enabling omnichannel customer engagement "has not always been as advanced as it should be."
Service providers, advised the report, should make "targeted use of AI to better orchestrate customer journeys, as well as invest in well integrated central data repositories and robust data management capabilities."
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— Ken Wieland, contributing editor, special to Light Reading