Robot Wars: Telecom's Looming AI Tussle

Three-way fight
In this environment, a different type of robot war looms as companies jostle to provide the AI systems that will control the networks of the future. A three-way fight is shaping up, with traditional network vendors on one side, technology players on another and operators caught in the middle -- taking products from third parties while developing their own capabilities at the same time.

Viewing AI as a potentially lucrative new sales opportunity, network equipment vendors such as Sweden's Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC) and China's Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. are starting to market their nascent AI products as an essential ingredient of 5G, a forthcoming next-generation mobile technology. Huawei reckons 5G wireless networks will have 50 times as many configurable parameters as their 4G predecessors -- too many for humans to handle efficiently. It is developing a "wireless intelligence" system that uses big data analytics and self-learning capabilities to automate some of these processes. (See Huawei's $800M 5G Budget Piles Pressure on Ericsson, Nokia.)

Ericsson boasts something similar with its "machine intelligence" line-up. Its "load-balancing" tool, which can make rapid adjustments to network settings in response to usage levels, is already in trials with Vodafone España S.A. The operator plans to use the AI-based technology in commercial networks this year. (See Humans Beware: Ericsson Readies Machines to Run the Network.)

Lights Out in Kista
At Ericsson's headquarters near Stockholm, the Swedish vendor is developing the AI technologies for the future 'zero-touch' network.
At Ericsson's headquarters near Stockholm, the Swedish vendor is developing the AI technologies for the future "zero-touch" network.

But many service providers evidently fear being led blindly by vendors into an uncertain AI future. Deep-seated anxiety about the interoperability of products and services from different suppliers appears to have sharpened this fear. The prospect of "vendor lock-in" may be especially troubling when it comes to AI. If a third party's self-learning tool comes up with solutions that technicians and rival technologies cannot fathom, the operator may worry about losing control. (See DT Demands Automation, Cloud Tech From Pan-Net Suppliers.)

While this is partly an ethical dilemma, several of the world's biggest operators hope to overcome some of the interoperability concern through the Facebook-led Telecom Infra Project (TIP). In late 2017, Germany's Deutsche Telekom AG (NYSE: DT) and Spain's Telefónica formed a TIP working group focused on artificial intelligence and applied machine learning. Like Ericsson and Huawei, it aims to build the tools that will manage the networks of the future, helping operators to cope with traffic growth and service complexity. One of its three work streams is all about developing multivendor data exchange formats. The working group has drawn support from South Korea's SK Telecom (Nasdaq: SKM) on the telco side as well as Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) from the vendor community. Facebook and Avanseus, an Indian software company, are also listed as project champions. (See Facebook's TIP to Launch AI Working Group.)

Outside TIP, nervousness about the growing might of vendors and technology giants is spurring some operators to hire data scientists and invest in their own AI tools. Norway's Telenor, which plans to cut about a fifth of its workforce in the next three years through automation, is one of the most prominent. "When it comes to the solutions and models, we don't believe in buying them," said Bjorn Taale Sandberg, the operator's head of research, in a recent conversation with Light Reading. Telenor Group (Nasdaq: TELN) is currently testing machine learning for resource optimization and planning. In future, says Sandberg, this might help it to cut software spending: Telenor could buy fewer licenses and move them between basestations as traffic flows around the network, he explains. (See Downsizing Telenor Pins Margin Hopes on Automation.)

Still Smiling
Bjorn Taale Sandberg, Telenor's head of research, wants the Norwegian operator to develop in-house AI skills instead of relying on vendor expertise.
Bjorn Taale Sandberg, Telenor's head of research, wants the Norwegian operator to develop in-house AI skills instead of relying on vendor expertise.

In some cases, it is a lack of vendor offerings that has driven operators to seize the initiative. Using AI algorithms, Telefónica has built its own data analytics platform to improve the efficiency of its network operations. "Three years ago, when it looked into this, there weren't any commercial solutions," says James Crawshaw, a senior analyst with the Heavy Reading market research business. The in-house platform might today be used to automate some field force management, he says, and even to ensure capital expenditure is not wasteful.

SK Telecom has gone even further, becoming an AI vendor in its own right. Much like Telefónica, it has been using internally developed AI for network management and operations. Tango, as the system is called, allows it to gather and analyze data in real time, says Park Jin-hyo, the operator's chief technology officer. "With this we can have almost zero-touch operations," he says. "The operations guys hate me." Having seen the benefits at its own business, SKT began providing Tango to India's Bharti Airtel Ltd. (Mumbai: BHARTIARTL) last October. (See India's Airtel Calls on SKT for Tech Help.)

Rather like Huawei, SKT expects the importance of AI to grow with the rollout of 5G. "It is impossible to manually operate a 5G system because there will be so many alarms and messages," says Park Jin-hyo. Tango was accordingly designed with 5G networks in mind. When those finally appear, it should be able to accommodate 5G features such as network slicing, dynamically apportioning resources to specific services and customers as needs dictate.

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Light Reading.

Seeking a new growth opportunity, Finland's Elisa, a much smaller telco on the world stage, is similarly morphing into a supplier. Facing resource constraints and surging traffic levels on its mobile network, it began automating network operations and radio systems years ago, training network engineers to use popular coding languages such as Python. More recently, Elisa Corp. has been marketing its automation tools and expertise to other telcos. Romania's RCS & RDS was unveiled as its first customer in February. (See Finland's Elisa is selling its automation smarts to other telcos.)

While AI does not currently figure in Elisa's offer, that could soon change. "We have to be sure that when we use new technologies we have tested them properly, but we are very excited about the possibilities," says Kirsi Valtari, a senior vice president at Elisa's telco efficiency business.

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