With its roots in the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, automation is hardly a new phenomenon. Nor, of course, is it one that affects the technology and telecom sectors only. So why are parts of the telecom industry suddenly touting it like a cure for cancer?
The ceaseless marketing of the buzzword by some companies partly reflects newish developments in so-called "robotic process automation" (RPA) and artificial intelligence (AI) that certainly are not telecom-specific. Facing the perennial need to cut costs and the steady advance of web players, some operators have fast latched onto these more generic technologies as a potential panacea.
In tandem, as operators continue to wrestle with SDN and NFV, the much more focused automation of network services and management has risen up the telecom agenda. If these technologies promise eventually to deliver simpler and more autonomous networks, they are introducing complexity today, says James Crawshaw, senior analyst with the Heavy Reading market research group. "At first that means more humans to figure out how to get this stuff working," he says. "In the early phase virtualization brings less automation."
While this transition is underway, several industry groups have sprung up to address the challenges associated with network automation. The precise role of these different groups remains largely unclear, however, and there is some concern their efforts overlap. Politics are undoubtedly at play, as rival interests clash. (See Tribalism Is Rife in Telecom, Too.)
Telcos' efficiency drive has claimed thousands of jobs in the last two years, including hundreds in the recent weeks, as Light Reading's research and reporting has shown. Although some of these cuts are linked to automation, it remains very early days for RPA, AI and, of course, the efforts of the aforementioned network groups. All will have some impact on the workforce and the roles of telecom operator staff. But the entirely self-driving network belongs to the realms of science fiction for the time being.
"I don't think we will get a telecom operator with one guy running the network in 10 years' time," Crawshaw laughs. (See Efficiency Drive by Major Telcos Has Claimed 74K Jobs Since 2015, Automation's Advocates in Downsizing Denial and Comcast Also Cuts Jobs, AT&T Faces Lawsuit.)
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