Across several years of surveying operators on their network transformation plans, one thing has remained constant: automation of network functions and operations is a top priority, particularly for keeping opex costs in check.

This was the case when we went out and got input from 100 operator network executives in 2019. And, it was just as true when we completed our latest network transformation survey earlier this year, with network operations automation identified as the top priority for driving opex savings over the next year.

Specifically, operators were asked to rank their top three opex reduction technologies and, when weighting for first versus second versus third place, automation came in well ahead of most other options. (Want to know what the other options were? Contact me here).

So, it was only natural that we would follow up on this work by checking in with operators to understand their automation strategies, priorities and plans.

As with our other surveys, we connected with 100 operator executives (automation experts, in this case) from around the world to ensure something more than anecdotal or regionally-biased stories. And, as with our other operator surveys, this work identified some very important misconceptions.

Perhaps the biggest surrounds the role of automation in the RAN.

When asked where they believe automation can deliver the greatest value, a small minority of operators highlighted RAN operations, trailing core network automation, service assurance, or service rollout automation (see chart, below, click to enlarge). Given the way RAN equipment (aka base stations) provides a literal connection with users and dominates capex budgets, this was particularly confusing.

How, then, can we explain it and/or think about it?

One explanation follows on the top network transformation strategy drivers for operators. In short, operator strategic priorities are focused on revenue-centric activities, which link more naturally to service delivery and billing than network operations. And, sure enough, when we asked operators specifically about their strategic priorities for network and service automation, we heard the same thing: experience and revenue dominate the thinking.

Want more evidence for the linkage in thinking? The top two drivers for network automation are increasing service complexity and elevated service expectations.

Services, customer experience and revenue. These are all driving automation agendas. That’s a good thing. While opex and capex savings are important, it’s impossible for anyone to save their way into growth.

But, returning to our original quandary, all of this only makes RAN automation more important, not less.

To be fair, we shouldn’t read too much into the fact that a minority of operators highlighted RANs as the domain where automation can deliver the greatest value. Singling out the top domain does not imply that there’s no value in the others: the results cannot be seen as proportionally indicative of how much value operators see in RAN automation. Of course the fact RAN automation was ranked last does suggest its importance isn’t seen as being on par with the other areas. And, that’s a big problem for four reasons.

  • Services and revenue. Operators see new consumer and enterprise services as key to revenue generation and growth. Delivering those services and revenue will require solid mobile broadband coverage and capacity, building on a solid RAN foundation. User experience. The coverage and capacity needed for delivering new services are also the key components of a good user experience. Today, that holds for basic, casual internet usage, social posting and video watching. Tomorrow, it will be even more important for high-bandwidth, mission-critical, latency-sensitive use cases. Once again, the RAN will be critical for delivering.
  • RAN complexity. Following increased service complexity and new service expectations in the list of network automation drivers was increased network complexity. That’s possibly nowhere more evident than in the RAN, where new technology generations including non-standalone and standalone 5G are getting rolled-out while older generations get decommissioned (or not), new spectrum bands are introduced, fresh antenna technologies become available, networks become more dense and some RAN assets get virtualised or placed in the cloud. Managing all of that in a reasonable way will require automation of some tasks and processes.
  • RAN automation tools. Where the RAN is critical for supporting new, high-quality services while getting increasingly more complex, the importance of automation goes without saying. Luckily, we’re also in a golden era of RAN automation tools, with big and small suppliers looking to add intelligence into the RAN.

Connecting users with innovative services and high-quality experiences, there can be no doubt RAN operations are critical to operators’ strategic priorities. And, as service and quality expectations rise, while the RAN gets ever more complex, there can be no doubt automation will be needed. Operators who recognise this reality stand to benefit. Those who ignore it, do so at their own peril.

– Peter Jarich – head, GSMA Intelligence

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.