The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic has triggered a massive uptake of technologies among stakeholders in the telecom industry. The year 2021 has witnessed a continuation of this trend, with cutting-edge technologies finding many ta­kers in the telecom domain. The majority of Indian telcos leveraged technologies su­ch as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) and virtualisation to create adaptable and programmable networks th­at require minimum human intervention. Further, the year saw all major telcos ma­king progress towards open radio acc­ess network (O-RAN) deployment to re­main future-fit. Going forward, these automated and open networks, created by leveraging next-generation technologies, will enable telcos to lay the foundation for a robust 5G world.

A look at the key technology trends that shaped the telecom sector in 2021…

Leveraging AI and ML to automate networks

Almost every piece of modern technology today has, in one way or the other, been optimised, discovered, or created with the help and involvement of AI and ML. In India, Bharti Airtel announced the roll-out of Avanseus’s predictive maintenance (PdM) solution across its operations. Ava­n­­seus PdM uses AI analytics to offer ac­tionable operational insights based on the telco’s network data. Its deployment will enable Airtel’s teams to proactively “predict and prevent” incidents in the network. Besides, the solution is cloud native, containerised and ready for Airtel’s 5G roll-out. The PdM solution forms a part of Airtel’s advanced automation strategy, in which ML algorithms and AI are used to support the move toward zero-fault and zero-touch networks.

In addition, Airtel and Tata Consul­tancy Services (TCS) joined forces to test 5G-based use cases from TCS’s Neural Ma­­nufacturing suite of solutions. The so­lution leverages ultra-reliable low la­ten­cy communication, enhanced bandwid­th and the combined power of technologies such as AI and ML. Meanwhile, Relia­nce Jio pil­oted a multimedia chatbot, using its home-grown 5G RAN and stand-alone core network, leveraging technologies such as AI, using 5G’s latency-sensitive high-bandwidth. Also, Jio Institute proposed to laun­ch programmes in AI and integrated marketing communication for undergraduates.

Deploying SDN/NFV

The growing size and complexity of telecom networks has driven the demand for software-defined networking (SDN) and network function virtualisation (NFV) solutions. These solutions can simplify and maintain the entire network efficiently. The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic has been a major demand driver for the adoption of SDN and NFV solutions, as it has led to a shift towards cloud services in many organisations. Further, cloud service providers are leveraging SDN capabilities to build an integrated network for augmenting the flexibility and scalability of cloud-based platforms.

While SDN and NFV technologies promise a variety of benefits, they are not devoid of challenges. The factors that in­hi­bit service providers from adopting SDN and NFV solutions include lack of or­ches­tration, complexities associated with the in­te­gration of third-party virtual network functions, organisational problems and lack of cohesive industry standards. Se­cu­rity re­ma­ins another major challenge as­sociated with SDN- and NFV-based networks.

Net, net, the adoption of SDN and NFV technologies is critical for telcos to move towards a new 5G-based network ar­chitecture. Telcos can leverage emerging opportunities in the enterprise space and partner with various IT vendors to help en­terprises across industry verticals build programmable and flexible networks.

Embracing O-RAN

Over the past few years, the concept of O-RAN has generated a significant buzz across the telecommunications industry. Owing to various advantages that the technology offers to telcos, it is fast em­er­ging as the go-to solution for operators. During 2021, Bharti Airtel and Qual­co­mm Techn­ologies announced a collaboration for acc­el­erating 5G development in India. Th­rou­gh Air­tel’s network vendors and device partners, Airtel will utilise the Qualcomm 5G RAN platforms to roll out virtualised and O-RAN-based 5G networks.

In addition, Airtel announced a collaboration with Intel for 5G network development by leveraging virtual RAN (vRAN)/ O-RAN technologies. Recently, Airtel hosted the O-RAN Alliance Global Plug­Fest 2021 in India in partnership with leading global and Indian technology companies. Airtel has been a board member from the beginning of the O-RAN Alliance, which now associates a worldwide community of more than 300 telecom operators, ve­ndors, and research and academic institutions working in a transparent way to develop a sustainable O-RAN ecosystem.

Meanwhile, Reliance Jio is testing its own 5G O-RAN solution in several cities. Its parent company Jio Platforms has partne­red with chipmakers Qualcomm and NXP to make virtualised RAN and sm­all cells to support its 5G network for various use cases including fixed wireless access. Vodafone Idea Limited (Vi) is also focusing on O-RAN for future 5G networks.

The O-RAN architecture has also op­ened the door for Indian software and equip­ment makers and system integrators to cap­tu­re a piece of the global 5G market. For telecom players, it lowers capex and opex, and  b­rings in more efficiency and in­novative solutions with quicker deployment of 5G. For system integrators, it is a way of ex­pan­ding their reach globally. It is in this co­n­text that O-RAN seems to be a good bet.

Edge computing

Remote working has now become a buzzword, paving the way for cloud-enabled technologies to shape the new normal. As cloud is gaining momentum and enterprises are frantically looking for ways to optimise their network, storage and agility, edge computing has turned out to be the perfect solution.

In India, edge computing is gaining substantial momentum. Among operators, Airtel has signed a pact with Intel to dep­loy its latest third-generation Xeon Sca­lable pro­cessors, FPGAs (field-programmable gate array) and eASICs, and Ether­net 800 series across its network to build a solid fo­undation for rolling out wide-scale 5G, mo­bile edge computing and network slicing. In addition, Airtel has turned to Open­Stack to ready its network for emerging technologies such as 5G and edge computing.

Meanwhile, Reliance Jio has teamed up with Google Cloud on cloud computing. Although this partnership primarily fo­cuses on 5G technology, it will cut acro­ss other avenues such as the transition of legacy Reliance businesses like Reliance Retail and JioMart to the cloud. It also includes developing apps with edge computing. In a similar move towards multi-access edge computing, Vi recently demonstrated 5G use cases around public safety, smart and connected health, smart construction and connected workers using 5G trial airwaves allotted by the government.

Cloudification of networks

The data traffic on networks has already in­c­reased manyfold and is expected to grow further as new-age use cases get more deeply entrenched in the day-to-day life of consumers. This has led to a sizeable increase in the demand for cloud. NFV and cloud deployment across the net­work enables transformation of traditional integrated vertical stacks of hardware and software in a typical network, fr­om a single vendor to layers of generic ha­rd­ware and cloud software that can run ap­p­lications from any telecom vendor.

During 2021, Airtel also partnered with IBM to deploy a hybrid cloud solutions for a group of five milk producer companies (MPCs). It will enable the MPCs to strengthen support to milk farmers and securely record and access key informati­on. Meanwhile, Vi is looking to deploy Cis­co’s Ultra Packet Core across India. Also, Vi is actively working with Cisco to design and build a cost efficient network architecture to drive greater speed-to-market with em­erging opportunities in cloud.

Besides, Google strengthened its partnership with Reliance Jio with an ultra-affordable smartphone, which could connect hundreds of millions of customers to high speed mobile data and a cloud tie-up to boost Indian telecom firms’ 5G push. Seeing the market trend, the cloudification of network solutions is where the industry is headed. However, tapping of these opp­ortunities would require efficient ironing out of various impediments in the way.

Growing telco presence on IoT turf

The internet of things (IoT) market in India has gained significant traction in the past year, with businesses realising the significance of connectivity, especially in a Covid-19-affected world. IoT players, in­cluding telecom operators will, however, have to revisit their existing infrastructure, business models and partnerships to serve this surge in connected devices in order to capitalise on this opportunity.

In India, Airtel claims to be the market leader in the fast growing cellular IoT space with a market share of 45.5 per cent. The operator is offering a flexible set of ap­pli­cation programming interface to eli­mi­nate cumbersome integration journeys and all­ow enterprises to stream the process of connecting, collecting and analysing data through their existing workflow tools. The company also has a larger plan on the device ecosystem. Of late, its parent Bh­arti Enterprises has collaborated with Dix­on to manufacture set-top boxes, rou­ters and networking devices, including IoT devices.

Meanwhile, the enterprise arm of Vi, Vi Business, has recently launched integrated IoT solutions for enterprises. In addition, Vi has partnered with TCS in their endeavour to provide superior customer experience across areas such as customer life cycle management, order management, IoT product life cycle management, billing, device and customer support. With this, Vi is well positioned to capitalise on future growth, driven by the government’s push towards “Digital India” and “smart cities”. The operator is now looking to acquire a 10-12 per cent share in the non-connectivity IoT space as well. To this end, the company is leveraging its innovation lab to build these IoT offerings.

Also, comprehending the opportunity in the IoT space, Reliance Jio, in partnership with Samsung, has already made its pan-In­dia IoT network, based on narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) technology, operational. Reliance Jio deployed its first commercial NB-IoT service for Tata Power Delhi Distribution Limited’s smart meters. In ad­dition, MG Motor India has tied up with Jio for the IoT features in its upcoming mid-size SUV. Moreover, the operator has reportedly been in advanced talks with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to launch its IoT services in India.

Bracing OSS/BSS

The ever-evolving digital ecosystem and the rise of over-the-top platforms have pro­pelled telecom service providers (TSPs) to become digital service provi­de­rs. A vital part of this transformation is building fu­ture-ready networks and inves­ting in digital operations and business support systems (OSS/BSS) that are efficient, scalable, flexible and collaborative. These systems enable TSPs to manage vi­tal information such as customer and pro­duct metrics, and conduct operations.

While OSS/BSS solutions are finding many takers in the telecom industry, their deployment involves challenges. The rules and regulations around privacy and data security are considered the single biggest barrier to the deployment of BSS in the public cloud. Some TSPs also struggle to understand some legal and compliance issues around the adoption of cloud-based solutions. Another major challenge is the lack of a skilled workforce.

Challenges notwithstanding, the OSS/ BSS market is poised to grow substantially in the coming years. The annual revenues for the global OSS/BSS market are expected to grow from $17 billion in 2017 to $22.5 billion in 2022, at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 5.8 per cent. Further, the overall growth in the market will be driven by the uptake of more vendor services, which will grow at a CAGR of 6.8 per cent to $17.1 billion in 2022. In the services domain, the need for managed services and accelerated growth of software-as-a-service will drive revenues for both OSS and BSS segments.

SASE gains traction

Secure access service edge (SASE) is an enterprise security architectural model for networking that is designed to support faster application access. As people have started to work remotely following the Covid-19 outbreak, the need to deploy the SASE model has become more urgent for securing networks and enterprises are rushing for this solution.

Meanwhile, in a big win for Cisco, Airtel has announced the expansion of its existing SD-WAN deal with the company to include managed SD-WAN and SASE architecture. Through the collaboration with Cisco on SASE, Airtel will provide enterprises access to just about any virtualised network service that can be stored in the cloud. In a similar move, Vi launched a cloud-based security solution its enterprise business. Vi Cloud Firewall comes with firewall features such as gateway antivirus, DDoS pr­o­tection, secure VPN, data loss prevention, content filtering and real-time in­telli­gence, among others.

Going forward, as per industry experts, security and networking industries will consolidate over the coming years. The em­ergence of SASE, which is a combination of both security and networking technology, is part of a larger trend that will drive vendor consolidation. This changing trend will present ample opportunities for new and existing vendors to ­­­­ into the SASE space and secure a stake in the growing market early on.