Manifesto for a brave digital future in telecom IT and OT (Reader Forum)
The Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Reality, robots, and drones are just a few technology topics we read about almost every day – in the mainstream press as well as in specialized industry publications. A wealth of articles has been written about emerging technologies’ potential to create value for consumers and enterprises through connected devices, new applications, and innovative services. But what will these innovations mean for the day-by-day operations of a telecoms company? And how can they help to close the gap between information technology (IT) and operations technology (OT) practices that often (still) don’t play nicely together?
This article proposes a ‘manifesto’, in which I introduce ten technology trends that will deliver a new toolkit for CIOs, operations managers, and IT professionals. William Gibson (the American-Canadian science fiction author who introduced the term ‘cyberspace’) wrote that “The future is here, it’s just not widely distributed yet.”
- Sensors everywhere
Today’s average smartphone contains, say, approximately ten sensors, ranging from proximity detectors to fingerprint scanners — and your car may include even more. Sensors are capable of measuring and detecting environmental conditions, or 24/7 monitoring and supervising the status, health, and location of all kinds of physical assets — including the infrastructure that is critical for the digitalization of business processes and operations, such as communication networks and data centers.
- Every-thing connected
No less than two years ago, the Internet of Things was topping the technology hype cycle. Today, IoT applications have become (almost) a commodity in many industries and enterprises. Together with 5G, cloud computing, and AI, they are recognized as key enabling technologies for the 4th industrial revolution.
Use cases within ICT realm include applications like data center monitoring, predictive hardware maintenance, or asset inventory management. As an example of the latter, the Belgian operator Proximus has recently deployed an IoT-based solution for tracking the cable reels in their high-speed fiber network rollout.
- Data is the new oil
In digital transformation, data is an immensely valuable and often (still) untapped asset. “Data is the new oil”, because just like crude oil, the more the data is refined, the more sophisticated applications it can fuel, and the more value it will provide.
Many companies start relying upon cognitive analytics to support planning, decision making, and to predict the behavior of products and assets. And, once you can predict behavior, you have reached the point where the data is pure enough to be transformed into knowledge that lets machines, systems, and applications make autonomous decisions.
- AI is the new electricity
The electricity metaphor comes from machine learning pioneer Andrew Ng. Just as electricity transformed industries in the past century, AI will profoundly change our world in the next several years. Ng states that “pretty much anything that a normal person can do in less than a second of thought, we can now automate with AI.” Doesn’t this apply to much of the decision making we do every day? If you have 30 spare minutes, I recommend watching Andrew Ng talk about the state of Artificial Intelligence on YouTube.
Machines are notably ’smarter’ than humans when large volumes of historical and real-time data are available for processing. Telco use cases for cognitive analytics and AI include crowd insight (i.e., for infrastructure planning), customer insight (to get a 360° view on customer satisfaction, revenue, and device and network performance), and proactive care (resolution of service, device, and network issues before customers even notice them.)
- (Ro)bots will work for us
Smart machines will need programs to search for and collect information, interfaces to conduct a dialog with humans, and mechanical capabilities to carry out physical tasks. Depending on their functionality we often classify them as (search)bots, chatbots, virtual assistants, or robots. With microelectronics and software technologies evolving at the speed of light, the lines between the different species are blurring, and their intelligence keeps growing.
A new job market may emerge for (ro)bot personnel in telecoms and IT. As not all robots are created equal, they may show up as blue-collar or white-collar workers, depending on their ability to conduct ‘physical’ vs. ‘intellectual’ activities. A few years from now, underground cable maintenance may be outsourced to crawler robots, network engineers will get expert support from digital assistants to get fast access to critical information, the helpdesk agents we talk to could be intelligent chatbots, or we might be welcomed by a chatty humanoid at a retail store.
New human interaction technologies like Augmented Reality (AR), Virtual Reality (VR), and Mixed Reality (MR) are also making their entry in operations and maintenance to overlay augmented asset information or support digital twin navigation.
- The sky is the limit
Over the past years, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) or drones, have evolved from remote-controlled miniature planes that were mainly operated by the military to flying robots helping civilians to ‘do the impossible or reach the unreachable’ in various domains like photography, agriculture, engineering, and logistics. Going forward, expect AI-powered UAVs to further blend into our lives and ICT operations.
Some current telco use cases are the use of drones are cell tower inspection, Line of Sight network planning and setup, and bringing instant connectivity to rescue operations and natural-catastrophe areas.
- 5G is more than radio
Traditionally, hardware and radio technology advancements drove the munch of the evolution of mobile networks. The evolution to 5G will be different, with software playing a critical role. 5G brings the promise of making spectrum, hardware and software technologies (like SDN/NFV) work together better.
Thanks to its high density, peak bandwidth, and low latency, and their capability to support up to a million connected devices per km2, 5G will be the connectivity foundation for realizing all the trends mentioned above and use cases, as well as many more. And network slicing and the migration to the cloud will offer unprecedented flexibility to develop new ecosystems and to grow business — without bounds and at a lower cost.
As McKinsey puts it, operators will need to reinvent themselves digitally. Not only by renewing their network, but also by transforming their operations, and changing the way they do business.
- Digital is the new time
In marketing, a moment of truth (MOT) is defined as the moment when a customer/user interacts with a brand, product or service to form or change an impression about that particular brand, product or service. With the digitalization of business and services, some companies have optimized their processes and tools to optimally address this moment — as well as the time before and after.
In today’s hyper-connected and computerized world, these digitalized moments of truth need to take place in quickly. End-users want business to happen immediately, systems to react intelligently, services to be personalized, and interactions to be intuitive. People no longer buy products; they expect experiences, too.
The technology evolutions listed in this article provide companies with a unique toolbox to change their speed of doing business to digital time and provide a right-here-and-right-now experience to their customers.
- Experience is the new currency
Take as an example the experience that Uber has created, with a sophisticated software platform and a smartphone app that’s available anytime and anywhere. It allows an Uber passenger to enter their destination on a map, choose car options, get driver info, arrival time and, cost estimate — all before they have even seen or talked with the driver. During the ride, there’s no language hassle; one can track ride progress and ETA in real time, and easily change plans/destination. At the end of the trip, there’s no cash or credit card reader needed. Customers get their ride report and receipt delivered to their phone. And they can rate and share their experience online.
Now think of how the customer experience could be enhanced through digital technologies from either a communications service provider or an end user’s perspective. Purchase, activation, and (self) installation of devices, software, and services are made simple and first-time-right. Service desk interactions unnecessary since problems have been detected and fixed proactively. And network capacity and coverage are always available when and where it’s needed — at home, on the move, at a mass event; and more.
- Automate or die
To reap the benefit from the digital time opportunity, Communication Service Providers need to become Digital Service Providers. They can achieve this by transforming their network-centric operations to customer-centric operations, marrying their IT and OT systems, automating their business to manage complexity, increase agility, reduce TCO, and delivering a superior experience at the speed of business.
Today we see automation powered by machine learning and AI almost everywhere in networks and systems, and closed-loops are considered the silver bullets for killing complexity. Take for example use cases for Self-Organizing Networks (SON) or the orchestration of service fulfillment and assurance flows. A recent study by Nokia Bell Labs concluded that closed-loop automation can only work in combination with a new architecture and an implementation master plan. The full benefit of automation can only be realized if it’s done in concert. Small benefits can be realized with tactical, domain-specific automation, but those benefits can only be maximized if harmonized and orchestrated.
Alan Kay, one of the earliest pioneers of object-oriented programming once said, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” That’s a call for action to our industry. Let’s keep innovating to transform the human experience and improve people’s standard of living and working.
Please note that the ten claims in the above manifesto are a personal choice by the author. The enumeration is subjective and prone to evolution. To those readers who feel that cyber-security, identity management, blockchain, 3D printing, and so much more shouldn’t have been left out — you’re right!