Automation has emerged as the very hottest topic in the telecom industry this year, as operators try to get rid of manual processes and boost efficiency.
Indeed, with the industry struggling to uncover a new growth opportunity, the use of automated systems should help to lower costs and bolster margins. But automation is not just about cost savings. In a world featuring billions of connected devices, manual processes will no longer cut it. Operators will have to make investments in automation to cope with new technologies and their needs.
For all the concern about the impact on employees, there is a positive angle to the automation story, too. More sophisticated digital tools could help to satisfy customer requirements and be used to sell additional services to consumers and business customers. Some observers have also argued that staff currently used to maintain and operate networks could be redeployed and even help to generate new revenue streams for their employers.
The Leading Lights award for most innovative automation strategy received a number of very strong entries, providing examples of many different forms of automation. The shortlisted candidates are Colt, Epsilon, Reliance Jio and Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), Reliance Jio (with a separate entry from its joint submission with Cisco), SK Telecom (Nasdaq: SKM) and Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ).
The winner will be announced on Monday, May 14, at Brazos Hall in Austin, Texas. On the following day Light Reading's Big Communications Event opens its doors for two days of learning, networking and fun.
Readers can find out more about the companies that were shortlisted across all award categories here.
Let's find out more about the shortlisted candidates for this particular award.
Colt Technology Services
When it has come to the rollout of software and virtualization technologies in telco networks, Colt Technology Services Group Ltd has been an acknowledged frontrunner in the industry. But the UK-headquartered operator, which serves enterprise customers worldwide, is now looking to take those investments to the next level through the automation of processes traditionally managed by staff.
Colt's automation activities so far can be neatly divided into a number of categories. But its Novitas platform is among the most important. Set up to provide a fully automated service, Novitas allows customers to take charge through a portal or APIs. On that front, Colt has also been instrumental in defining API standards in partnership with organizations and operators including the Metro Ethernet Forum, AT&T, Orange and Verizon.
Colt's next-generation network management system also allows it to configure and activate services on its Colt IQ Network, replacing manual intervention and provisioning tools that were previously used. The operator is also pushing into the artificial intelligence space with Sentio, a system that supports automated service optimization and network restoration.
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A wholesale connectivity provider, Epsilon Telecommunications has been ahead of the game when it comes to automation. Last December, it revealed to Light Reading that it was on the verge of turning off its legacy provisioning system and moving to an automated platform delivering on-demand services through a portal.
Related to that move has been the development of a network API strategy allowing Epsilon to present all the functions on its network as programmable resources. The company is now using APIs to integrate its own automated connectivity platform with those of other service providers. This means customers will gain access to a bigger network and be able to manage and monitor services across that network from a single portal.
Reliance Jio Infocomm and Cisco Systems
Renowned for causing turmoil in one of the world's biggest consumer telecom markets, India's Reliance Jio (RJio) has also been at the cutting edge of technology developments. Working with California's Cisco as a network partner, RJio has been able to automate its all-IP infrastructure with some impressive results. Besides "onboarding" about 100 million customers in a record 170 days, it has also built systems that give it fully integrated fault and performance dashboards for more than 150,000 network elements. Among other things, the tools it put in place allowed it to carry out an automated upgrade of around 20,000 routers using a single maintenance window.
RJio also credits Cisco's expertise with helping it to build a nationwide network in lightning-quick time. The vendor's use of microservices and related tools allowed RJio to rapidly digitize processes including device configuration and service activation. With Cisco's support, for instance, RJio has been able to introduce a new process for activating subscribers using biometric data. This has sharply reduced activation times from days to just minutes.
Reliance Jio Infocomm
RJio's name appears twice in the shortlist of candidates for this automation award. Besides its entry with Cisco, the operator also qualifies for the work carried out by its "Foresight" team on automating software management processes and improving the speed and accuracy of supporting systems.
The benefits have been numerous, it seems. With a fully automated system, RJio has been able to reduce employee numbers in software management by 85% (it says staff can be used for more important activities). The amount of time it takes to update network elements is also down by 83%. All changes and events are now automatically tracked and logged using a single pane of glass. And the manual errors that once occurred have been eliminated. All in all, RJio says the investment has led to a better end-user experience and more efficient use of resources.
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Like Colt, South Korea's SK Telecom is justifiably seen as a pioneer of new technologies including software-defined networking (SDN) and virtualization. Its automation strategy is multi-pronged and involves activities in several network areas.
On the SDN front, SKT has built its own orchestrator for automating processes around network, service and inventory management. The operator says it has also been able to reduce service-provisioning times by around 90% through an in-house path computation engine developed internally. Its T-MANO virtualization platform, meanwhile, is designed to handle any vendor's products and has similarly led to sharp reductions in deployment times and costs.
TANGO, meanwhile, is an artificial intelligence system that powers next-generation operational support systems. "It is impossible to manually operate a 5G system because there will be so many alarms and messages," Park Jin-hyo, SKT's chief technology officer, told Light Reading earlier this year. Designed with 5G in mind, Tango should in future be able to accommodate 5G features like network slicing, dynamically apportioning resources to services and customers as required.
As one of the biggest operators in North America, Verizon sees automation as a way of improving the service experience for its enterprise customers. Another overarching aim, it says, is to make the wide area network behave in a more "cloud-like" manner.
The operator has, therefore, come up with a new portal that allows users to create and maintain heterogeneous network services. The service designer, as it calls the platform, bridges some of the gaps between business and operational support systems and will ultimately allow customers to take a kind of "app store" approach to assembling services. The tool is aimed at simplifying the process of designing the network, and can be scaled to thousands of locations worldwide, says Verizon. "Very soon, I will be opening that up for customer use," said Vickie Lonker, Verizon's vice president of product management and development, during an interview with Light Reading last month.
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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading