Review: FutureNet World 2021

Review: FutureNet World 2021

By Robert Curran, Consulting Analyst, Appledore Research

In a strange allegory, the sudden removal of MWC from the telecom calendar in 2020 revealed just how dependent telecom had become on a handful of large suppliers and year-long lead times: for conferences. The result has been innovation, and the creation of new opportunities and credible alternative suppliers – not for the same product, but new, arguably more open solutions addressing a wider range of customer needs. Ones that are more agile, more flexible, lower-cost (for sure) and delivers a different and in many ways better experience for customers. Sound familiar?

The last year has seen the emergence or reinvention of a number of smaller players on the conference scene. I would argue that their fight to find a place in a changed world perfectly mirrors the challenge in the wider telecom supply chain: the need for creativity, the need for investment and the support of conservative customers (especially when established suppliers cast fear, uncertainty and doubt on their effectiveness or viability), and the creation of collaborative ecosystems – in this case, ecosystems of providers of content: speakers and moderators, and ultimately the willing participation of us: the end customer. These innovators, including FutureNet world, are all to be commended for the risks they have taken – and for what they have shown is possible,

Giles Cummings and the FutureNet team have done an excellent job at honing their platform to create something that is very watchable. It doesn’t feel like just another Zoom call, and they made smooth and natural turnovers between pre-recorded and live sections. In fact, it was a lot like being at a live event – in a good way, and without the schlepping between breakout rooms or arriving into plenary sessions to find eyechart slides on a screen half a mile away. Video and audio quality was particularly and uniformly good. Whether this was down to solid rehearsals or everyone having bought new webcams and microphones in lockdown I can’t say, but the end result was appreciable.

Speaking of which, credit to the many speakers, who also seemed to have gotten the memo about font sizes. In my book, anything less than 14 point is too small – especially on screens that inevitably will have simultaneous chat, questions, polls plus everyday email, Teams, Slack sessions or other “real work” going on too.

Zeroing in on Network Automation

Futurenet World has zeroed in on network automation as its central theme, which still gives a lot of room for an interesting program. That focus frees up the program from extraneous discussions on billing, CRM, data modelling, wavelengths, optical fibre production, “broadband”, policy and regulation, all of which have their place, but usually at much duller events. It also avoids the 5G conference trap, where the answer is inevitably that 5G is the solution, irrespective of the problem.

The program had a good balance of vendors and operators, and is open-minded enough to accommodate support from a range of personable and knowledgeable analysts, including Appledore’s Patrick Kelly, Anil Rao from AnalysysMason, James Crawshaw at Omdia, Chris Lewis, Roy Chua at AvidThink, Amy Cameron and Dalia Adib at STL, Dimitris Mavrakis at ABI Resesarch, Scott Raynovich at Futuriom, the venerable Jeremy Cowan, with proceedings held together by Mark Newman, who compered looking and sounding as smooth as a telecom version of Grand Designs’ Kevin McCloud.

The Network of the Future

In the opening panel session, Enrique Blanco explained that automation isn’t so much about any one thing – as about everything. Telefonica is building what it calls a “new operating model” for telecom, and an OSS that is “fully different” from what has gone before. And this isn’t just talk. Telefonica has a clear program over the next few years for large-scale implementation of its open, software- and AI-driven network principles, most notably in Open RAN.

No alt text provided for this image

Swisscom agreed that automation is an existential priority. Definitely not in the “nice to have” category, since it will be what enables a differentiating customer experience – especially for enterprise customers.

The idea of network as a platform enabling innovation (by others) was a recurring theme. This is as much a cultural challenge as a technical one. Lester Thomas (Vodafone) and Kim Larsen (T-Mobile) referenced programs aimed at fostering and enabling new third-party application developers to leverage their open, programmable networks – particularly for IoT. For example, using a “connected bike” (no, not this one) to crowdsource air quality monitoring.

Several speakers talked about enterprise customers wanting CSPs network platforms to be more integrated into their enterprise infrastructure. The combination of additional network telemetry, and the ability to alter the network’s parameters through APIs, means that enterprises want more direct control, rather than what Colt has called the “Procurement-to-Procurement” interface. Colin Bannon at BT Global said this included enterprises looking to integrate network change functions within enterprise apps such as ServiceNow. A far cry from being sidelined as commodity connectivity providers, then.

This is part of what is now meant by Customer Experience. “To what extent do you enable your network to be my network?”

And don’t tell the CFO, but “cost reduction is not our main priority” in spending on major change programs. At least, not now. It’s all about the experience – and enabling slick, responsive, intelligent new ones.

Telecom is learning not merely to live with uncertainty, but to positively relish in it.

The talk was of new, untried and unknowable customer needs. So it is readiness to adapt – whatever the future holds – that is most highly valued. Even over cost savings, if the various polls are to be taken at face value.

The discussion of edge is still undergoing some clarification, and attitudes vary, particularly driven by geography. The potential (and need for) edge infrastructure in small country like the Netherlands is radically different from, say India, or the US. We can expect to see greater precision on discussions about edge going forward – on those applications which give operational benefit to CSPs, vs those which deliver a clear benefit to end customers.

Hyperscalers featured in the agenda and in the content, as telecom continues its nervous dance (Partner? Competitor? Supplier?). As Ned Taleb of B-Yond put it on Day 2: “Hyperscalers will go around telcos if they need to…”

Farmers and Fisheries

There were a lot of “where are we?” opening questions, reflecting the fact that telecom’s various transformation efforts remain a work in progress, with much to be done. And the work still to be done varies greatly from CSP to CSP. But at least there was consensus that real progress requires a combination of technology, mindset change (in short: “closed” to “open”, in every sense), process change (from siloed/vertical/domain to service/horizontal), and greater level of understanding of customers’ problems and context. One size won’t fit all – but you’ll still need it to be automated.

No alt text provided for this image

The session on 5G and industry moderated by Chris Lewis contained some challenging truths for telcos. Especially for 5G, telcos’ relevance will depend on them getting into the weeds (literally) with their customers in agriculture, their feet wet (literally) on fishfarms, and hands dirty (literally) in manufacturing. That will mean changing telco sales engagements from (as Telus’ Ibrahim Gedeon put it) “minutes and (mega)bytes” to business solutions partnerships. It’s the very opposite of “zero-touch”. It’s an entertaining panel.

Standards

In a panel on end-to-end service orchestration there was an interesting discussion between Inmanta’s Stefan Walraven and DT‘s Klaus Martiny, regarding the credibility of delivering end-to-end service automation in six months, in the absence of standards. The exchange highlights the continued delicate tension between standards and speed, with CSPs working within the standards groups, but being prepared to reach past them to deliver what Roy Chua summarised as “tangible wins”. Quite.

Roy asked if we were in danger of “getting really good at re-inventing the wheel”, which – to its credit – is exactly the sort of provocative aside that FutureNet is happy to accommodate, without causing a fit of nervous coughing. (In another session, Mattias Fridstrom from Telia Carrier asked: “who actually needs a telco? If you can buy your SDWAN directly and run all your applications in the cloud?” – refreshing to see courageous questions being asked in public!)

Roy Chua, AvidThink, Stefan Walraven, Inmanta, Luis Velarde Tazón, Telefonica S.A, Klaus Martiny, Deutsche Telekom AG, Russ Bartels, Windstream

No alt text provided for this image

AI & Automation

Orange believes AI can bring value to every phase of network lifecycle: Design/Build, Run, and Optimize. It also explained some of its use of Google Cloud Platform (Appledore recently published a profile on GCP). FTTH maintenance using AI has led to substantial reduction in field interventions.

In a panel on AI and Automation moderated by Appledore’s Patrick Kelly, Airtel provided insights into the market squeezes that mean automation truly is an existential issue for Indian telcos – hundreds of millions of low-APRU customers; huge rise in data consumption; extreme competition and a vast and varied geography. The perspective from Randeep Sekhon was especially compelling.

Patrick Kelly (Appledore Research), Michael Fränkle (TDC NET), Bradley Mead (Ericsson), Randeep Sekhon (airtel)

The same panel revealed that concerns about trusting AI are being rapidly overtaken by practical realities – there’s no way to run even today’s networks with human intelligence alone. And progress is already being made on closed-loop resolution of sizeable percentage of day-to-day network problems.

No alt text provided for this image

Appropriately, FutureNet closed with an interview with Rakuten’s Tareq Amin. The discussion is wide-ranging, but if you really want to understand the Future of Networks – that’s just about the best place to start.

Appledore Research provides analysis of many of the topics covered in FutureNet World, including Network Automation, Open RAN, 5G and Industrial Automation, Edge and Telco Cloud, Security as well as vendor profiles and market share reports. Follow Appledore for updates.