Wednesday, January 31, 2024

The AI-native telco network

AI, and more particularly generative AI has been a big buzzword since the public launch of GTP. The promises of AI to automate and operate complex tasks and systems are pervading every industry and telecom is not impervious to it. 

Most telecom equipment vendors have started incorporating AI or brushed up their big data / analytics skills at least in their marketing positioning. 
We have even seen a few market acquisitions where AI / automation has been an important part of the investment narrative / thesis (HPE / Juniper Networks)
Concurrently, many startups are being founded or are pivoting towards AI /ML to take advantage of this investment cycle. 

In telecoms, there has been use for big data, machine learning, deep learning and other similar methods for a long time. I was leading such a project at Telefonica on 2016, using advanced prediction algorithms to detect alarming patterns, infer root cause analysis and suggest automated resolutions. 

While generative AI is somewhat new, the use of data to analyze, represent, predict network conditions is well known. 

AI in telecoms is starting to show some promises, particularly when it comes to network planning, operation, spectrum optimization, traffic prediction, and power efficiency. It comes with a lot of preconditions that are often glossed over by vendors and operators alike. 

Like all data dependent technologies, one has first to have the ability to collect, normalize, sanitize and clean data before storing it for useful analysis. In an environment as idiosyncratic as a telecoms network, this is not an easy task. Not only networks are composed of a mix of appliances, virtual machines and cloud native functions, they have had successive technological generations deployed along each other, with different data schema, protocols, interface, repository which makes the extraction arduous. After that step, normalization is necessary to ensure that the data is represented the same way, with the same attributes, headers, … so that it can be exploited. Most vendors have their proprietary data schemes or “augment” standard with “enhanced” headers and metadata. In many case the data need to be translated in a format that can be normalized for ingestion. The cleaning and sanitizing is necessary to ensure that redundant or outlying data points do not overweight the data set. As always, “garbage in / garbage out” is an important concept to keep in mind. 

These difficult steps are unfortunately not the only prerequisite for an AI native network. The part that is often overlooked is that the network has to be somewhat cloud native to take full advantage of AI. The automation in telecoms networks requires interfaces and APIs to be defined, open and available at every layer, from access to transport to the core, from the physical to the virtual and cloud native infrastructure. NFV, SDN, network disaggregation, open optical, open RAN, service based architecture, … are some of the components that can enable a network to take full advantage of AI. 
Cloud networks and data centers seem to be the first to adopt AI, both for the hosting of the voracious GPUs necessary to train the Large Language Models and for the resale / enablement of AI oriented companies. 

For that reason, the more recent greenfield networks that have been recently deployed with the state of the art cloud native technologies should be the prime candidates for AI / ML based network planning, deployment and optimization. The amount of work necessary for the integration and deployment of AI native functions is objectively much lower than their incumbent competitors. 
We haven’t really seen sufficient evidence that this level of cloud "nativeness" enables mass optimization and automation with AI/ML that would result in massive cost savings in at least OPEX, creating a unfair competitive advantage against their incumbents. 

As the industry approaches Mobile World Congress 2024, with companies poised to showcase their AI capabilities, it is crucial to remain cognizant of the necessary prerequisites for these technologies to deliver tangible benefits. Understanding the time and effort required for networks to truly benefit from AI is essential in assessing the realistic impact of these advancements in the telecom sector.

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