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."
For more NFV-related coverage and insights, check out our dedicated NFV content channel here on Light Reading.
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.)
Next page: Automation talking points
Automation talking points
The main automation talking points and challenges this year are likely to be as follows:
RPA: This is essentially about killing off manual IT processes (such as spreadsheet data entry for an expense report) through the use of software robots. Operators including Germany's Deutsche Telekom AG (NYSE: DT) and central Asia's KazakhTelecom have either made investments in RPA or started to look at it more seriously. Last month, KazakhTelecom told Light Reading that future automation of several internal processes could eliminate "routine manual work" for about 500 of its 23,000 employees. Deutsche Telekom has already used RPA to realize cost savings equal to about 800 full-time employees, it revealed in September 2017, when it had about 216,500 employees overall. On the networks side, traditional telecom vendors provide some RPA support. "When Ericsson takes over network management [for an operator] it will seek to use RPA to take costs out an operation and make it profitable," explains Crawshaw. (See Kazakhtelecom Fires Starting Gun on Automation and DT Trumpets Automation Savings Worth '800 Employees'.)
Want to know more about the emerging SDN market? Check out our dedicated SDN content channel here on Light Reading.
AI: While this "uber" topic, as Crawshaw describes it, has generated waves of hype in the last couple of years, the rapid pace of AI development has come as a surprise to nearly everyone. In the telecom world, operators including the UK's Vodafone Group plc (NYSE: VOD) and Australia's Telstra Corp. Ltd. (ASX: TLS; NZK: TLS) have taken advantage of these developments most noticeably in customer services, using AI-powered "chatbots" to handle basic customer queries. "You can take away the frontline support and allow someone to find out how much they are spending on mobile this month, for example," says Crawshaw. AI could also improve security and network management by detecting patterns in the alarms that get triggered and then determining which are relevant and which are duplicates, he adds. (See Chatbot Takes Charge: Vodafone's Customer Services Overhaul.)
The self-driving network: An expression that Juniper Networks Inc. (NYSE: JNPR) has used in its marketing literature, the self-driving network looks set to be many years in the making. But the recent proliferation of industry groups in this area shows what a hot topic it is right now, and highlights the lack of any standardized approach to automating modern-day systems. Virtualization ultimately should support automation by allowing operators to modify networks through software upgrades as opposed to hardware rollout. In the short term, though, the complexity that comes with investment in SDN and NFV can make networks appear even less automated than in the old days of dedicated boxes, says Crawshaw. If that is so, then restoring a pre-NFV level of automation must be an immediate priority.
Next page: New movers and shakers
New movers and shakers
As noted, a number of groups are trying to address the specific challenges of automating telecom networks. Still in their infancy, and surrounded by uncertainty, a few are nevertheless worth pointing out at the start of 2018:
ETSI ENI: Launched by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) in February 2017, the Experiential Network Intelligence (ENI) group aims to help operators automate their network configuration and monitoring processes through the use of AI. The basic idea is to build a system that can "learn" from its operation, and from data fed to it by operators, so that it improves with age like a fine wine. Members include ADVA, Amdocs, Intel, Samsung and ZTE in the vendor community, as well as China Telecom, Telecom Italia and Verizon on the service provider side.
Want to know more about cloud services? Check out our dedicated cloud services content channel here on Light Reading.
ETSI ZSM: Another, even younger ETSI group, the Zero Touch Network and Service Management initiative took shape in late 2017, issuing a white paper that outlined its objectives just last month. Its broad aim, it says, is not to come up with new technical standards but rather to define working practices and systems enabling "agile, efficient and qualitative management and automation of emerging and future networks and services." That essentially means ensuring that "all operational processes and tasks [can be] executed automatically, ideally with 100% automation." The ZSM has also revealed that its initial focus will be on 5G end-to-end network and service management. Its formation has proven controversial, though, with skeptics wondering if a purportedly non-technical initiative should be overseen by ETSI. And the TM Forum regards it as a challenge to its own ZOOM project says Crawshaw (ZOOM, which stands for Zero-Touch Orchestration, Operations and Management, was set up way back in February 2014 to look at the evolution of operational and billing support systems in the virtualization era). ZSM members include Deutsche Telekom, Ericsson, Huawei, Intel, Nokia, NTT Corp, Sprint, Telefónica and ZTE. (See ETSI's 'Zero Touch' Group Issues Telco Automation White Paper, Automation Gets Its Own ETSI Group and Can ZOOM See Daylight?)
TIP AI/ML: Last but probably not least is this addition to the list of Telecom Infra Project (TIP) working groups. Launched in November, the Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning group says its focus will be on using AI to help telcos keep pace with the growth they are seeing in "network size, traffic volume and service complexity." It also hopes to come up with new AI-based approaches to network operations that could support the rollout of new services in areas such as autonomous vehicles, drones and augmented and virtual reality. Deutsche Telekom and Telefónica are co-chairing the group, while social media giant Facebook continues to back the overall TIP initiative. (See Facebook's TIP to Launch AI Working Group.)
— Iain Morris, News Editor, Light Reading