Conference Review: FutureNet World 2019

Network Automation and AI remain at the core of the Industry’s growth

Dimitris Mavrakis, Research Director, ABI Research

Held on 26-27 March 2019, FutureNet World was a stage where the supply and demand side of telecoms narrated about industry themes expected to drive the next wave of growth. Network Automation and AI was the umbrella topic of the event, a key foundational pillar for the next wave of growth in the telecoms market. Major themes at the event were: cost optimization and operational efficiency; creating new growth opportunities anchored on AI; and establishing cloud-native, federated platforms for a plethora of telco services.

The overarching question of the event was how can the industry reduce overall cost structure from an operations standpoint? Virtualisation, edge computing, 5G and Internet of Things (IoT) will create complexity that cannot be managed without a high degree of automation. Zero-touch automation, therefore, was a key thread discussed by key executives from Telecom Italia, Telus and ETSI. Zero-touch automation remains the end goal for far-reaching operational efficiency. Vodafone, Telefonica and BT were some of the operators that articulated their efforts towards zero-touch automation operations. The scale of current industry initiatives is small, but it constitutes good progress nonetheless. Going forward, CSPs must avoid clinging on to legacy processes and acknowledge that waiting for a ‘perfect world’ may not be the right path to take.

There is some discussion building up in the industry to establish innovative AI use cases at the edge.  AI opens new opportunities for operational efficiency and top-line growth but on the condition that the industry steps out of the narrow AI adoption highlighted in the conference. The industry cannot yet foresee clear growth opportunities from platform-based, general AI deployments, but the advent of 5G (and especially URLLC) and the ongoing openness of telco networks will almost certainly kick-start a wave of discussion aimed at innovative use cases. The growth imperative is expected to be driven by the intersection of edge computing, 5G and AI but this is a significant industry shift that will not materialize overnight. Consistency in strategy execution, creating the right culture and environment to integrate AI into telco DNA, and acquiring the human capital that embraces these new technologies are three strands that warrant further deliberation.

CSPs are currently assessing open – or even open source – technology platforms that can homogenize technologies and use cases. To that end, MobiledgeX, Ori and B-Yond were a few vendors among many that provide MSPs with the ability to anchor their operations on a common federated platform for telco edge solutions. Such market developments are conducive of a platform-first approach, an integrated system that can run best of breed service solutions and connect any device on a common (cloud) architecture. Scale and a global commercial reach are undoubtedly in the making. But participants’ consensus was that this federated access calls for alliances, partnerships and an ecosystem that extends the utility of IT-designed solutions to the telecom domain.  These alliances are yet to materialise, but the next stage of telco profitability will likely depend on these.

The predominant upshot of the conference was that embedding automation in telco operations is an incremental process as opposed to a big bang adoption. A phased adoption that tackles each domain in turn and that aligns with timelines and budgets is a viable option. Furthermore, the industry is well on its way to institute a platform ecosystem with uniform commercial rules and processes, underpinned by common data formats and AI telco standards. That progress notwithstanding, there is a great deal more to achieve particularly if the industry aims to emulate cloud and web-scale companies in scale, reach and agility. This may require a degree of sophistication on the technology, organisational and cultural fronts. Progression on those fronts should shed the slow and time-consuming standardisation approach(es) typical of telecoms. This is an ongoing discussion in the industry expected to be a key theme at FutureNet World 2020.