Over the past few years, telecom service providers (TSPs) have been warming up to the idea of automating telecom networks by leveraging cutting-edge technologies. However, it was only after the onset of the Covid-19 crisis, and its accompanying challenges related to maintaining networks, that automation became the need of the hour. As the pandemic spread across the world and crippled business activity, TSPs rose to the occasion and ensured minimum disruption in connectivity. While maintaining physical networks remained a huge challenge in this scenario, telcos that had already introduced some level of network automation benefitted, in turn making the industry realise how important it is to automate networks and build a future-ready ecosystem.

Now, it is widely recognised that automation is essential for the success of future network operations. Amidst the rising demand for streaming and video-based applications, social media platforms, etc., especially during the pandemic, telcos have started resorting to softwarisation to ensure minimum intervention at individual sites. Further, as manpower, power and transportation costs continue to rise, automation of networks has become indispensable for maintaining profitability, optimising costs and building efficient networks. Going forward, as 5G networks take the world by storm while ushering in more network complexity, automation will no longer be an option; it will become an imperative to enable service agility, provide better quality of service, and dynamically manage and orchestrate services while at the same time coordinating a multitude of data and technical domains, which would not be feasible by manual human operations.

Rise of the autonomous network

The operating environment for service providers is becoming increasingly complex. In a bid to cope with the rising network complexity, telcos are turning towards new-age technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), big data analytics and automation to build intelligent and predictive networks. The combination of these technologies will ensure that a network has the intelligence to act on its own with minimal human assistance.

Moreover, as data has started taking precedence over voice across the globe, low ARPUs have become a cause of concern for telcos. This is because over-the-top (OTT) players have begun generating huge revenues, leaving a smaller portion of the pie for telcos. In this scenario, customer experience (CX) is a major differentiating factor among telco networks. However, improving CX based on old metrics such as better voice plans, more data and better 4G coverage does not create a point of differentiation as long as it is fairly easy for other telcos to catch up with. The only options that seem to work in this situation are the adoption of new technologies and the exploration of new market segments such as 5G and internet of things (IoT). However, servicing these market segments, which are partly business-to-consumer (B2C) and largely business-to-business-to-consumer (B2B2C), calls for building networks that can adapt to a sudden surge in demand for network bandwidth and capacity. This is especially true in the present era, as it comprises an ever-demanding customer base that requires ubiquitous availability of networks to support high-bandwidth applications.

The kind of network architecture that can support these demands is one that combines software-defined networking (SDN) and network function virtualisation (NFV) functionalities, and helps telcos create autonomous networks. These autonomous networks can be defined as ones that can manage almost everything, from planning coverage and capacity to migrating or building themselves, and testing and running automatically. These intelligent networks can detect problems even before they occur and can proactively take steps to prevent them. Further, an autonomous network automatically adjusts capacity supply and weans off when demand is low. It can also understand when it is damaged in a particular area, notify the closest field engineer, and suggest the right equipment and skill set needed to fix the problem. All these capabilities combined in the form of an automated network can help telcos ensure near-zero network downtime, usher in network stability, and deliver improved CX.

Adopting automation

According to a recent study by Deloitte, network automation offers a slew of benefits to telcos. Key among these are improved returns on investment (RoIs), with some TSPs experiencing RoIs of roughly 400 per cent over the past five years; improved consistency as 70-90 per cent of repetitive network maintenance work can be automated via ML; better team efficiency as deploying self-organising network (SON) algorithms can reduce team effort by around 37 per cent in radio access network (RAN) engineering; improved time to market as 80 per cent lower engineering effort is required and a site can be made ready for air in just one to three hours; and enhanced CX with 100 per cent consistency and 100 times faster response to customers. The study also highlights that early investors in automation are already envisioning secure long-term returns.

Recognising these benefits, telcos in India have started investing heavily in automation and its underlying technologies such as service orchestration, SON, ML and network virtualisation. All three private telcos – Reliance Jio, Vodafone Idea Limited (Vi) and Bharti Airtel – are investing in network automation in a bid to stay future-fit. Over the past two years, Airtel has entered into partnerships with IBM, Red Hat, Cisco and Ericsson for modernising its network and enabling automation. The partnership with IBM and Red Hat will help Airtel build telecom network cloud services to enable easier 5G adoption. The hybrid cloud architecture will provide improved flexibility, network stability and performance, and bring agility and automation in Airtel’s network operations. Through the partnership with Cisco, Airtel deployed India’s first automated 5G-ready Ethernet over fibre internet protocol network to enhance network availability, capacity and scale. Recently, Airtel renewed its agreement with Ericsson to provide pan-Indian managed network operations through the Ericsson Operations Engine. Under the partnership, Ericsson will deploy the latest automation, ML and AI technologies to enhance Airtel’s mobile network performance and CX.

Reliance Jio is also future-proofing its national transport network with transport SDN capabilities and laying the foundation for an adaptive network. The operator has partnered with Guavus to leverage the latter’s AI-based solutions to provide real-time CX and predictive analytics that would enable Jio to automate network troubleshooting and garner key marketing insights. This will help Jio to offer superior service to its customers while addressing critical service operations with intelligent automation.

Meanwhile, Vi has partnered with Nokia to deploy more than 5,500 time division long term evolution massive multiple input multiple output (MIMO) cells in the 2500 MHz spectrum band in eight service areas – Mumbai, Kolkata, Gujarat, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh (East), Uttar Pradesh (West), Rest of Bengal and Andhra Pradesh. The deployment of Nokia’s massive MIMO solution will support exponential traffic growth by bringing extreme flexibility and automation, allowing the telco to adapt to dynamic and evolving traffic patterns while ensuring a world-class network experience. Moreover, the operator recently partnered with IBM and Red Hat to deploy a hybrid cloud platform that enables radical automation through standardisation. Vi has also partnered with Cisco to deploy an automated multicloud network across India.

Even state-run operator Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) has started moving towards automating networks and has signed an MoU with Ciena. Under the MoU, Ciena’s 5G network solutions will add scale and enable network automation in order to support a new age of mobile connectivity at BSNL.

Globally, too, telcos have started embracing automation and are rapidly investing in creating automated networks. For instance, the GSMA predicts that one-third of mobile network operators across the world are expected to have automated 80 per cent of their network operations by 2025.

Preparing for the post-Covid world

With the pandemic likely to continue for some time yet, telcos realise the importance of embracing the new normal. Businesses are expected to continue promoting large-scale remote working, with some companies already announcing permanent work-from-home models. This new way of working, coupled with the advent of 5G and its accompanying technologies, would need a diverse and intelligent automated digital environment that offers network flexibility and is capable of supporting real-time collaboration tools. While growing network complexity and scale might be key deterrents in enabling network automation, overcoming these issues and designing programmable networks seem to be the ideal ways to leverage the upcoming digital opportunities presented by the post-Covid world.

By Kuhu Singh Abbhi