The Zero-Person Network Operations Center Is Here (in Finland)

Telecom engineers continue to make speedy progress on phasing themselves out of the workforce, with the revelation this week that Elisa, Finland's biggest mobile operator, is now operating a zero-person network operations center (NOC).

The absence of humans has been well received by other humans, it seems. Customer complaints are down 15% since Elisa Corp. fully automated the NOC. And the number of "incidents" (macchiato spilt on circuitry, perhaps) has fallen 50%.

Elisa began automating its systems nearly a decade ago to cope with surging levels of mobile traffic. It recently began selling its automation tools and expertise to other operators, as Light Reading reported earlier this month. (See Finland's Elisa is selling its automation smarts to other telcos.)

But the news that its NOC is an entirely human-free zone was met with surprise at this week's Zero Touch & Carrier Automation Congress in Madrid. While some other telco facilities have been unmanned for a long time, the NOC has been the one place where people still keep an eye on the machines.

Humans are not yet entirely out of the frame. Unwelcome at the NOC, they can still be called at the local sauna or vodka bar if the machines get stuck, it seems.

"If there is a major issue in the network the robots call them and they can check it and deal with it straight away, but the tickets and alarms are automated in the network and the machine [usually] reboots the basestation or does changes automatically," said Snorre Nordrum Solvang, a business manager at Elisa Automate (the division selling to other operators), in Madrid. "We are also implementing this so that the machines follow the key performance indicators."

Automation has worked its magic in other parts of the organization, too. Elisa's own self-optimizing network (SON) system -- the tool it is selling to other operators -- carries out more than 3 million configuration checks and 3,000 network changes every day. It is supervised by just one optimization engineer.

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Getting rid of humans in planning and deployment is proving tougher, but Elisa says it can now automatically set up basestations and carry out "drive tests" from smartphone applications.

For the Finns and Estonians who do want telecom jobs, the good news is that Elisa still employs around 4,600 people in total, including many on the networks side.

Thanks to automation, though, it has been able to carry on running networks with the same manpower it had in 2007, despite a 20-fold increase in mobile data traffic since then.

Elisa has been retraining its network engineers to be able to code in Python, a popular programming language. But the number of people that are actually building the core algorithms from the ground up is fewer than ten, according to Solvang.

Elisa is not yet making use of artificial intelligence in network operations, but that looks set to change. "We're investigating it as a way of improving decision making," said Solvang. "How to improve the network further is getting increasingly difficult and this could help to adjust and increase the automation impact."

— Iain Morris, News Editor, Light Reading

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