Zero-touch 5G automation takes time, not seconds

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The prospect of a fully automated network operations center (NOC) is compelling to many MNOs. However, it comes with caveats.

Having a zero-touch, lights-out network operations center (NOC) offers many benefits: it reduces the dependence on human presence and manual interventions in daily network operations, which reduces operational expenses and Mean-Time-To-Resolution (MTTR) for network operators. Theoretically, this seems great; in reality, it’s a little more complicated. No one is certain that full automation of the NOC can be achieved.

Greenfield environments, or where incumbent operators are building brand new stand-alone networks – as is the case with some 5G roll-outs – operational automation is introduced at the very beginning. However, even with these scenarios, there are still some ambiguities. Keeping operational automation up and running is a continuous process that requires consistent investment and maintenance. The automation aspect of your operations will deteriorate over time without these two components.

In addition, it is difficult to transition from a manual or semi-automated legacy environment to a zero-touch network management approach when you must upgrade existing tools and processes and demonstrate that the change is worthwhile.

When embarking on this type of large-scale, long-term NOC automation project, there are many practical obstacles to consider, but it can be accomplished if a more pragmatic, balanced approach is adopted. The CSPs can demonstrate that their journey towards NOC automation is not just a sprint, but a marathon by automating the ‘low hanging fruit’, with a phased approach.

Automation as a value-adding strategy

While there are many motivators for CSPs to adopt zero-touch service assurance, what often motivates them is the urgent need to increase overall productivity without increasing OPEX costs. Phased projects often occur organically and are conceptualized tactically to overcome a specific challenge or issue or to achieve performance and cost-saving goals.

For the NOC, this might be achieved by reducing the number of trouble tickets and the need for intelligent trouble-ticket creation by transitioning from rules-based to machine learning-driven tools and processes. This is an example of the long-term, incremental approach to network management automation that evolves to become a zero-touch service assurance environment – where ML and AI are used to replace a manual or rules-based approach with a knowledge-based approach.

Automating processes does not have to be a part of a larger corporate plan. Individual departments can use their ingenuity and resources to tackle ‘bite-size’ projects on their own. By evaluating processes through this more focused perspective, opportunities for efficiency can be immediately identified and the business case can be easily justified. A preponderance of small, manageable projects that demonstrate ROI quickly and generate measurable gains assures the executive level that additional investments into service assurance automation will be worth the investment. Optimization opportunities can be scaled up and spread across an entire organization once they have been proven in isolation.

The inverse of this bottom-up strategy occurs when the executive management level attempts to create a foundation from which an organization can continue to innovate, as part of an overall Digital Transformation strategy. In a large-scale automation project, a company’s long-term vision within the context of a clearly defined roadmap can be driven by a significant budget and resources. A key milestone that is clearly defined and communicated early will help achieve broad buy-in from all departments, ensuring automation policies are embodied throughout the organization. An element of the strategic plan might include helping a telco fully automate a certain percentage of their processes by a certain date, or significantly reduce overall network downtime.

Making the most of ‘low-hanging fruits’

The purpose of assessing existing network operations is to identify incentives and objectives for automation once they are clearly defined. It can be beneficial to conduct a rationalization process of existing infrastructure to find out which tools and capabilities are most suitable for achieving automation goals. Teams responsible for network operations should assess which tools should be kept and updated, and evaluate which legacy items need to be retired since they are not capable of automating at the required level.

A viable option would be for operators to retain reliable solutions which deliver a high level of functionality and efficiency while integrating new features and advancements to meet business objectives. It is possible, for example, to apply machine learning-based root cause analysis and predictive analytics to existing service assurance platforms to achieve desired business outcomes without replacing the underlying event collection and processing functionality.

An automated NOC can be achieved more easily by entering a greenfield scenario, which enables planning and implementation from the very beginning, rather than retrofitting existing systems and practices. A manual or semi-automated environment, however, will not yield the same results as it is necessary to update existing workflows and tools, as well as justify the investment.

Full NOC automation will therefore never happen in a big way for mature operators, as opposed to a sudden transformation. Despite this, the presence of ‘low hanging fruit’ that can be easily addressed could make progress towards this goal swift and meaningful.

There has been a tipping point

As operators look for ways to optimize and modernize their networks, an assessment of the current state of their service assurance operations and OSS estates is necessary to ensure that they meet the demands of current and newly deployed 5G networks.

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The tipping point comes when it is no longer viable to support advanced and dynamic network functions through manual means, regardless of the costs. The availability and maturity of service assurance automation tools are key to helping operators achieve their automation goals at this stage. With said tools in place, it will be much easier for organizations to embrace a zero-touch mindset, embrace a new culture, and get operators on the path to full, or nearly full, automation.

A Zero-Person Network Operations Center Is Here (in Finland)

With Elisa, Finland’s premier mobile operator, now managing its network operations center (NOC) without any engineers, it seems that telecom engineers are phasing themselves out of the workforce.

It appears that humans have accepted the absence of humans well. As a result of Elisa Corp. automating its NOC, 15 percent fewer customer complaints have been filed. Additionally, the number of “incidents” (macchiato on the circuitry, perhaps) has fallen by 50%.

The company started automating its systems nearly a decade ago to handle a surge in mobile traffic. Light Reading reported earlier this month that the company has begun selling its automation tools to other operators.

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In Madrid this week, Zero Touch & Carrier Automation Congress attendees were surprised to hear that its NOC is a human-free zone. The NOC is the only part of the telecom network where people still watch over machines even though others have been abandoned for a long time.

It is still possible for humans to play a role in this process. The NOC welcomes them, but if the machines get stuck they can also be called at the local sauna or vodka bar, it seems.

They can check the problem and deal with it right away if there is a major issue in the network, but the tickets and alarms are automated in the network and the machine [usually] reboots the base station or makes changes on its own. Moreover, the business implements this so that the machines follow the key performance indicators.

In the organization as a whole, automation has also been effective. Each day, Elisa’s self-optimizing network (SON) system, which it sells to other operators, performs more than 3 million configuration checks and 3,000 network changes. One optimization engineer supervises the project.

As Elisa reports, it can now automatically set up base stations and conduct “drive tests” using smartphone applications, eliminating the need for people in planning and deployment.

The good news for Finns and Estonians looking for telecom jobs, however, is that Elisa still employs around 4,600 people total, including many on the networks side.

Despite a doubling of mobile data traffic since 2007, the group has been able to maintain its network operations with the same number of people it had back in 2007.

A popular programming language, Python, has been taught to Ellisa’s network engineers. However, fewer than ten people build the algorithm’s core code from the ground up, according to Solvang.

Elisa currently does not use artificial intelligence in network operations, but that is likely to change soon. To improve decision-making, they are still studying this method. In addition – It is becoming increasingly challenging to enhance the network, and this could assist in adjusting and increasing automation benefits.

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