Facebook's TIP to Launch AI Working Group

THE HAGUE -- SDN NFV World Congress -- The Facebook-led Telecom Infra Project (TIP) will launch a new working group dedicated to the subject of machine learning in November, it was revealed here this morning.

The new group will look at ways in which machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) can improve network management and be co-chaired by Germany's Deutsche Telekom AG (NYSE: DT) and Spain's Telefónica, said Axel Clauberg, the vice president of aggregation, transport and IP for Deutsche Telekom, during a keynote presentation.

"This is about how machine learning is applied to network management and how artificial intelligence can be used," Clauberg told conference attendees.

Launched in early 2016, the Telecom Infra Project (TIP) aims to spur innovation in the network equipment market and lower technology costs through the use of open technologies and by fostering collaboration between its members, which include operators, established vendors and a growing number of network startups.

Facebook hopes that lower-cost technologies will be used to provide connectivity in underserved regions, giving it access to more potential users, while some telcos appear to have joined TIP out of frustration with their traditional suppliers.

Operators have previously complained that vendors tie them to long and expensive contracts and about the lack of interoperability between products from different suppliers.

They hope to put pressure on those vendors by teaming up with startups and taking greater advantage of open source technologies. (See TIP Players Voice Open Source Misgivings.)

While few details are currently available about the new AI working group, its formation clearly reflects growing interest in the potential of machine learning.

Telcos are increasingly eager to "automate" their networks and cut out the need for human intervention. With so-called "zero-touch" capabilities, they would be able to make changes without relying on technicians.

"When something goes wrong you have an engineer touching the issue and that by default takes time to sort out," said Peter Konings, the head of product development in Europe for US-based Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ), during a panel discussion here on Tuesday.

Arash Ashouriha, Deutsche Telekom's deputy chief technology officer, this week said the operator's ultimate goal was to build networks that could function with "no human involvement," arguing that "brutal automation" was the only way the company would be able to succeed in future.

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Those comments and the formation of a working group on machine learning will fuel concern about the impact that automation and AI could have on jobs in the telecom sector.

While some analysts have downplayed the automation threat, arguing that many employees will simply get redeployed on other tasks, some operators are reportedly looking to use automation to cut their employee count by 50% or more. (See The Revolution Will Be Automated .)

But Clauberg says that Deutsche Telekom's current priority is to "get better at finding radical approaches to capital efficiency."

The volumes of traffic on its networks continue to rise exponentially just as average revenues per user keep falling, he complains.

"Five years ago we launched NFV [network functions virtualization] and we are pushing that and the cloudification of network functions heavily, but it is not enough," he said in explaining Deutsche Telekom's interest in joining TIP.

One concern is that telcos are now struggling to attract the brightest talent, with young software developers preferring to work for Internet companies such as Facebook or Google.

TIP can help to address that problem by bringing network operators together with startups. Through a program called the TIP Ecosystem Accelerator Center (TEAC), it is now providing telco support and even venture capital (VC) funding support to a number of startups.

"We've been talking to VCs recently and expect them to bring more money in," said Clauberg.

TIP has now opened three TEAC facilities globally and plans to open a fourth in Germany later this year. France's Orange is playing the role of telco "host" in Paris, while BT and SK Telecom are doing the same in London and Seoul respectively. Deutsche Telekom will host the TEAC in Germany.

In the UK, VCs have already made commitments to invest a total of $170 million in TIP startups, while in France they plan to invest $115 million, said Clauberg. (See UK's Zeetta Eyes £125M in TIP Funding and Orange, VCs Commit $113M to Network Startups as 'Black Box' Frustration Mounts.)

— Iain Morris, News Editor, Light Reading

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