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At FutureNet World 2021, It Was All About #CX – The Customer Experience!

portrait of Teresa Monteiro

April 28, 2021
By Teresa Monteiro
Director of Solutions, Software and Automation

The FutureNet World 2021 summit took place on April 20-21, bringing network automation and artificial intelligence (AI)/machine learning (ML) to center stage. Speakers from leading companies, such as Verizon, BT, and Rakuten, shared their vision and strategies for the future of the network, contributing to a highly engaging and educational event.

Topics addressed ranged from operational and digital transformation to cloudification, autonomous networking, and the future of the telecommunications industry – always with 5G, multi-access edge compute (MEC), and the Internet of things (IoT) in the backdrop.

Here are some of my personal observations from FutureNet World 2021:

CX – Customer Experience Matters

Gone are the days when network reliability was the hot topic. Today, highly reliable connectivity is table stakes, and the spotlight is shifting to customer experience.

Customer experience is a big driver for many operators’ network investments and network automation decisions. The agility, ubiquity, and ease of use offered by internet content providers for individual user services like gaming and enterprise services like dynamic cloud computing are setting ever-higher user expectations for telecommunication operators.

Automation and ML-based applications can accelerate service velocity, prevent performance degradation, enhance security, and tailor behavior – all contributing to improved customer experience. This reminded me of the results of a recent ACG Research survey, where increased customer satisfaction was also one of service providers’ top motivations for network automation.

Knowledge Is Power – But Is It Enough?

Telecommunication operators are facing challenging times. Not only do they need to deliver more bandwidth for the same cost, but they need to stay relevant and increase customer loyalty in a world where the promises of cloud-based networking seem hard to beat.

Telecommunication operators have a wealth of knowledge and experience in owning and managing complex networking infrastructure. Additionally, with modern networking platforms delivering real-time streaming telemetry, operators are improving visibility over their resource status and usage. With increased access to network information and the skills to make sense of it, operators can use ML-based applications to extract network trends and translate them into actionable insights, proactively preventing failures and optimizing services. But is it enough to succeed in the long term?

Many operators are considering broadening their service portfolios to access new markets and  increase revenue by offering new products beyond connectivity, such as software as a service (SaaS) applications, or products targeted at industry verticals. For those following this path, network automation is also key to bringing successful solutions together.

An Industry Looking for Partnerships

It is becoming clear that with increasing complexity, the most valuable automation solutions will not be sourced from a single software vendor alone.

Instead of selecting one monolithic software solution to automate their networks, operators are curating a collection of commercial and open-source applications to suit their particular needs and vision. Operators are putting together extended collaborations where multiple vendors, often competitors, work as solution partners, jointly analyzing operational and business challenges and adapting the overall solution. With projects spanning a wide range of competencies, from networking to software to data science to security, operators also need to adapt their own internal skillsets. For that, operators are establishing cross-disciplinary initiatives within their own companies and involving multiple internal organizations like network planning, network operations, and IT in the network automation effort.

Walk Your Own Road

All operators who participated in the event are committed to the automation road and plan to increase their investment in this area. However, the different perspectives presented confirmed that the pace of adoption of automation and the priority use cases differ significantly among operators. While some operators, like Orange and Telefónica, are well underway in the journey, deploying ambitious network automation projects targeting the use of AI/ML and closed-loop mechanisms, others are just now starting to automate individual mundane tasks.

One year ago, I wrote an article in Capacity Magazine titled “Network Automation: Walk Your Own Road.” Here I made the point that the successful road to automation is made by each operator, according to its own goals and in collaboration with vendor-partners, by taking educated, incremental automation steps. FutureNet World 2021 has reconfirmed that this still holds true.

Open Is the Way Forward

One of the most interesting sessions at FutureNet World addressed the theme of “The Open Telco” and automation. While the focus of this session was primarily Open RAN (O-RAN) standardization, this was not the only open initiative to deserve attention in the event. Open networking in general was recognized as a driving force for innovation and for more successful network programmability. I found the advocacy of this topic to be a timely validation of Infinera’s strategy for open and programmable optical networking solutions.

In terms of network automation, the open paradigm is already offering an opportunity for smaller or niche software players to join the solution ecosystem, integrating via standard open APIs and complementing and extending more established products.

Don’t Forget the Physical Layer Under the Cloud!

When listening to so many discussions about virtualization and cloudification, it is easy to forget the physical network underneath carrying the actual traffic. But innovation in the optical network remains critical in the era of automation, since dynamic services cannot come to life without a programmable physical network. Optical networks need to continue to evolve their flexibility by embracing common data models and open APIs to integrate smoothly into the operator’s chosen software environment.

Overall, this was a great event on a topic that is definitely gaining traction within our industry. Congratulations to the organizers and session moderators – nice job!

If you want to dive deeper into network automation topics, FutureNet World offers a very interesting collection of articles, videos, and podcasts for public access. A replay of my panel discussion on “Autonomous networks – enabling the future of the telco industry?” is also available below.