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Intelligent Telecom: Beginning of the AI era

December 07, 2018

Intelligent Telecom: Beginning of the AI...

By Akanksha Mahajan Marwah

World over, the telecom sector is undergoing a significant transformation with networks and functions constantly evolving and becoming more automated. In the emerging digital era, telcos realise that their networks and the data riding on those networks are the most critical assets, which, when monetised effectively, can prove to be a veritable game changer for their success. As a result, they are increasingly looking at ways and technologies to monetise these assets to their advantage. Artificial intelligence (AI) is one such technology that is being increasingly explored by leading global telcos to generate cognitive insights by mining the mountains of data collected by them. It is also being used to automate back-end business processes, which frees up staff, thereby increasing productivity and lowering costs. AI enables faster decision-making by gathering and processing network data in real time.

As telcos explore and embrace new age concepts of network function virtualisation (NFV), software-defined networking (SDN) and cloud, AI will be a vital element for managing the growing network complexity and scale. Commercialisation of internet of things (IoT) use cases and the advent of 5G are expected to create a multiplier effect on network complexity, one that will be beyond human control, monitoring and management. Here too, AI is being perceived as a powerful tool for aiding predictive maintenance of networks, helping telcos switch from reactive to proactive mode. There is a growing industry belief that AI-fuelled automation will be the only way operators will be able to offer future network services.

Clearly, AI promises multiple-tier applications in the telecom industry, ranging from customer experience and relationship management to data monetisation and intelligent network operations. This leads to the big question: Is AI here? Most telcos across the world continue to experiment with AI, especially in the domain of generating actionable intelligence from both structured and unstructured data. AI-enabled chatbots and voice interfaces have found takers amongst the global telco community. That said, even the largest firms have a lot of distance to cover when it comes to embracing predictive maintenance applications. In India, AI is still at a premature stage. Higher adoption is likely to be witnessed once 5G gets introduced. tele.net takes a look at AI’s potential to change the telecom landscape and the industry’s adoption of this technology…

AI and customer relationship management

Globally, operators are taking rapid strides in deploying AI to improve customer service. For instance, AT&T uses an AI chatbot to handle online customer interactions. Similarly, at Comcast, customers can speak to a “Talking Guide”, which interacts with users through voice-recognition AI. Meanwhile, CenturyLink’s AI assistant “Angie” reads and replies to 30,000 customer emails on a monthly basis, correctly interpreting 99 per cent of them and routing the remaining 1 per cent to human managers.

In India, the concept of AI is still evolving and its adoption, particularly in the telco space, has been limited. It is only in the past one year that there has been some spurt in AI exploration activity by the Indian telecom industry. Bharti Airtel has been at the forefront of this. Recently, the operator announced that its subscribers (using smartphones) would be able to interact with Airtel customer care through a natural conversation with the AI-powered Google Assistant. They would get instant resolution of their account-related queries through Google Assistant via a rich conversational experience. Although the feature is currently available only in English, it will be rolled out in multiple regional languages going forward. According to Sarang Kanade, director, customer experience and retail, Bharti Airtel, “With smartphones fast becoming the norm for every Indian, digital self-care will become much more interactive and enhance the customer experience.” The initiative is a part of Project Next, Airtel’s digital innovation programme, which is aimed at transforming the customer experience across all its services and touch points through digital innovations. “As a part of Project Next, we are rapidly scaling up Airtel X Labs, our digital innovation factory, and these new solutions will accelerate our journey towards rolling out intuitive digital products, particularly in vernacular languages,” says Harmeen Mehta, global chief information officer, Bharti Airtel. Airtel X Labs was set up earlier in the year to drive cutting-edge innovation in the areas of AI, IoT, augmented reality and virtual reality.

In October 2018, Airtel announced an “acquihire” deal with AuthMe ID Services, a Bengaluru-based start-up focused on AI-based solutions. With this partnership, Airtel is looking to serve its customers with innovative digital products based on AI. As a part of the deal, the core team of AuthMe will join Airtel and be a part of Airtel X Labs in Bengaluru. Also as a part of the deal, Airtel has acquired the intellectual property rights for AuthMe’s two flagship solutions. Callup AI is a chat and voice assistant that uses AI to quickly and effectively resolve customer queries over email, chat and phone calls. The application is built for vernacular languages with zero integration time. The other solution, Fintech OCR, is an end-to-end optical character recognition (OCR) pipeline built for financial documents. The application is designed for processing know your customer (KYC) documents, bank/credit card/loan statements, mark sheets, etc., and can be customised to process known formats of other documents. It can pick up any language with standard fonts.

For Reliance Jio, voice AI is a key focus area. The operator introduced voice commands on its MyJio application to ease the customer service process. Earlier, in June 2018, there were reports that Jio had started hiring a team of professionals who would be working under Akash Ambani on AI-based solutions and strategies for the company. As for Vodafone, the operator has globally been using AI to optimise its networks and meet customer needs. It makes a lot of sense to adopt AI technology to automate customer care processes as it brings considerable savings on human capital costs. With the ongoing competition, operators need to serve their customers better and address their grievances instantly. As a result, the cost of human interaction has gone up by 20-30 per cent. Use of machine learning (ML) can help release human resources from routine tasks and dedicate a higher workforce for critical and strategic projects.

AI and network optimisation

The networks of the future will be autonomously driven and will use AI technologies to self-diagnose, self-heal and self-orchestrate on-demand resources. In self-healing networks, AI systems are trained to look for patterns, detect and predict anomalies or other network issues, and take proactive steps to fix the service before customers are impacted.

Operators globally are exploring AI systems to monitor the state of equipment, identify patterns that predict failure and perform maintenance on a pre-emptive basis. AT&T and Verizon are leading the research into AI initiatives for self-healing networks.

In September 2017, Bharti Airtel  partnered with Korea-based SK Telecom to use the latter’s specialised AI-assisted network operating system with big data analytics and ML capabilities. The system enables the automated detection of issues on the network, troubleshooting of problems and optimisation of performance. It enhances the accuracy of network management by measuring the quality of network operations that customers experience while using the network, based on a real-time analysis of performance.

In November 2017, Bharti Airtel partnered with software firm Amdocs to deploy ML and AI-based technologies across its multiple lines of business. It is leveraging Amdocs’ innovation centres and delivery expertise to pre-empt and self-heal operational issues.

Going forward, as telcos shift their capex investments from hardware-centric networks to software-based, open-source network opex investments, AI-driven network operations will command an increasingly larger proportion of the overall network investments.

AI and analytics

Analytics and intelligent automation are complementary, which, when used together, will help telcos derive greater business benefits through service orchestration.

Operators sit on a mine of data generated by customers who are connected to networks through a variety of applications and devices. Telcos can collect data at every step of a subscriber’s journey, from device, web and mobile applications to geolocation, consumer profile data, call detail records, service usage and billing. Ongoing qualitative and quantitative customer interactions, requests, complaints, service logs and cross-channel portals can be analysed using ML, natural language processing (NLP) and deep learning (DL) to detect trends or performance issues.

Customer data also provides telcos with the opportunity to enter profitable partnerships. They have significant information about their customers - age, income level, consumer behaviour - which can be useful for collaborating with third-party vendors. Accordingly, vendors can decide on what advertisements to place, based on the location of the customer, the time of day, the weather and the user’s behaviour.

In May 2018, Jio launched an AI-based brand engagement platform with features like video call centres, video catalogue and virtual showrooms. Called JioInteract, it is a part of the MyJio app and listens to user questions and responds to them in the most appropriate way. The platform can be used by companies to reach out to customers for movie promotions and brand engagement.

Conclusion

Telcos today are experimenting with a variety of strategies to capitalise on emerging telecom technologies, rationalise costs and enhance efficiency. Telcos, particularly in India, are reaching a stage where the revenue per bit is lower than the cost per bit. In the recently released results for the July-September 2018 quarter, all Indian operators, including Jio, reported a decline in their ARPUs. In such a scenario, they are looking to leverage the opportunities presented by the exponential rise in data services to improve future prospects. The data services market is expected to reach Rs 950 billion by 2020.

Given the promise of AI in monetising data, boosting efficiencies and lowering operations costs, this seems to be an opportune time for telcos to deploy these solutions. AI will also be extremely crucial for operators’ software-defined approach towards operations and delivery of services. Industry experts believe that telcos must incorporate AI as a part of their broader growth strategy, and plan a roadmap for utilising AI capabilities to gain a significant competitive advantage over the next five to ten years.

In India, AI is still in its infancy, but there is a growing interest among operators in exploring this. Over the next few years, AI is expected to find increase use as operators realise its transformational benefits and the role of SDN in operator networks increases.

 
 

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