In the first of a three-part series, we look at network technology advances and how they influence strategies for operators as they transform their networks and positioning for the digital era.
To start, let’s consider the foundation of operator services — connectivity. To do so, it’s worth thinking about what operators will need to connect their customers to.
In October 2022, Telecom Infra Project, an industry body driven by Meta, formed a new body specifically to address the issue of connectivity: the Metaverse-Ready Networks Project Group. Its primary objective is to promote industry collaboration in defining the network capabilities needed to enhance metaverse services — in particular, to accelerate the development of end-to-end architectures and solutions, from the radio access network to packet transport, and associated APIs that improve network readiness to support metaverse experiences.
In essence, this means that operators need to have a road map to provide gigabit connectivity services, delivered predominantly through a combination of fibre and 5G, augmented by Wi-Fi. Yes, higher-speed broadband is of course desirable, but this is about more than just “speeds and feeds”. The bigger prize is the digital domain that opens up for users when they have access to highly reliable, ultrafast broadband. This goes beyond just connectivity, to the delivery of a value-added digital service platform, possibly including a network-as-a-service model — putting a different slant on the theme of just cranking up capacity.
As new applications in this domain begin to emerge, network performance and functionality will need to evolve. As they advance over the next decade, future immersive services will require more network capabilities to support greater agility, programmability, performance and reliability, so users’ connections must be ultrahigh capacity (that is, multigigabit), with very low latency, and be secure, available and reliable — a set of criteria that’s already being defined.
The path to gigabit connectivity echoes one of the elements set out by Huawei in its GUIDE blueprint, which urges operators to undertake what it calls a “gigaverse initiative”. This entails a plan to deliver ubiquitous gigabit connectivity in an always-on environment, to offer customers an immersive digital lifestyle.
More specifically, the term gigaverse suggests an alignment with the metaverse, the evolving augmented and virtual reality environment that promises new experiences in education, healthcare, remote work, entertainment and more. This is a domain where operators can create value for their consumer and enterprise customers. Of course, high-capacity connections are a must, but it’s not just a case of adding more capacity.
The metaverse is experience-driven. That experience will comprise multiple factors: the headset or glasses used to interact with a metaverse environment; the quality and usability of the metaverse content — how interactive it is, how easy it is to navigate and so on — as well as other factors. The metaverse has to deliver a real-time, high-definition experience that constantly adapts to the user’s activity if it is to be compelling — and profitable.
Operators need to aim to deliver gigabit services everywhere, so Huawei is right to place emphasis on connectivity as being at the heart of telco transformation. Being a provider of high-performance connectivity means an operator is delivering a high-value service, not just a utility-style pipe. Getting connectivity right — and “metaverse readiness” is the correct target to aim for — provides a foundation for everything else that follows in terms of digital services.
Another technology driver related to performance of the network is automation, and this too is specified by Huawei in its GUIDE blueprint. Network automation is not a new concept, but the focus for operators now needs to be on accelerating what Huawei calls the “ultra-automation” of their networks, that is, automating as much as possible in the network, essentially creating a zero-touch autonomous network.
Network automation uses software-driven processing to plan, deploy and configure networks and orchestrate services. This is vital, given the increasing complexities of 5G and its plethora of services, users, devices and applications. Automation addresses several operational challenges faced by telcos:
- Accelerating decision-making in the network; for example, the provisioning of services
- Improving network efficiency; for example, the allocation of network resources
- Reducing manual workloads and human error in network operations
- Smart diagnosis of network quality, enabling fast fault location and predictive maintenance
- Smart monitoring of networks to locate, identify and resolve network security problems
- Optimization of roll-out and capacity through intelligent, predictive network planning
Automation can also play a significant role in service creation, as it gives operators the ability to design, build and test new services, reducing development costs and time to market.
A great example of this in action came from a presentation I watched by Thai operator AIS, given at Huawei’s Global Mobile Broadband World Forum in Bangkok in October 2022. Saran Phaloprakarn, the operator’s head of mobile and consumer products, specified the role network automation was playing in delivering enhanced user experience and putting AIS ahead of its rivals for video, 5G games and 5G voice experience for customers.
Mr Phaloprakarn said that automation was vital in enabling AIS to aggregate its network infrastructure, edge computing, public cloud and applications ecosystem as a single platform. This gives AIS a more agile, flexible and scalable platform, unlocking new interactive and immersive services for customers, and is integral to network quality and tangible experience benchmarks.
Taking full advantage of 5G functionality is impossible without network automation. It’s a crucial capability for operators, as it enables more-agile and cost-effective digital operations by automating network workflows such as configuration, service provisioning and traffic management. But achieving zero-touch automation is an evolution, not an instant impact. Operators should focus on accelerating their journey to full automation throughout their networks. The faster they get there, the faster those networks will deliver the benefits.
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