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The role of AI and zero-touch networks in a 5G-powered world

To successfully capture 5G business opportunities while reducing costs and complexity, network automation must increase. With 5G, networks will see a surge in end user demands, both in volume and variety, which will require new business models. Here, Iexplore the challenges this creates for service providers, and how AI-powered zero-touch networks could solve them.

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The corona virus situation has made everyone more aware than ever of the importance of digital communication in daily life.  Hopefully, this situation will not last much longer, but we will probably take some important  learnings with us when it is over.


The need to reduce costs, while monetizing 5G networks

Telecom service providers’ top two business challenges today are reducing operational costs and complexity and managing and monetizing 5G networks. Today’s networks are a mesh of several technologies deployed to meet market demands. Meeting end user demands quicklyd will add further complication to their networks, and can adversely affect how service providers monetize and manage their networks.

But even before the  pandemic happened, the total global mobile data traffic grew by 56 percent between Q1 2019 and Q1 2020, reaching 90 exabytes per monthaccording to the Ericsson Mobility report in May this year. At the same time, massive IoT technologies like NB-IoT and Cat-M1 continue to be rolled out around the world, and these connections are estimated to have increased by a factor of 3, reaching close to 100 million at the end of 2019. Massive IoT primarily consists of wide-area use cases, connecting massive numbers of low-complexity, low-cost devices with long battery life and relatively low throughput. Broadband IoT mainly includes wide-area use cases that require higher throughput, lower latency and larger data volumes than massive IoT technologies can support, and finally critical IoT includes both wide-area and local-area use cases that have requirements for extremely low latency and ultra-high reliability. The first modules supporting critical IoT use cases are expected to be deployed in 2020.


Some mobile network data insights

By 2025, it is expected that 45 percent of total mobile data traffic will be carried by 5G networks.

Buckets of data form the basis of the offerings from nearly every telecom service provider. The amount of data traffic in packages has increased and – in most markets – voice and text messaging are included in the package. Recently, service providers have been creating packages that cater for the usage of specific services or devices in various combinations.

Service provider challenges with increased network complexity

Figure 1: Service provider challenges

Service providers’ networks are becoming increasingly complex and are reaching the point where they can no longer be  run reliably by humans alone

In our report – Supercharging customer experience through AI and automation we discovered some interesting findings aboutt telecom service providers’ current attitudes towards AI:

  • 90 percent state that AI is important in boosting customer experience
  • 8 in 10 expect an increase in cost and added complexity as a result of adding new technologies, and see increased automation and AI technologies as answer to these complexities
  • 92 percent have refined the use of network insights to drive performance during the last year
  • 9 of 10 place customer experience and growing revenues high on the agenda
  • 7 of 10 think that technological transformation is a key challenge

With more network software, and the legacy approach to managing networks, they will experience challenges related to change management, standardization of data, service models and APIs and the lack of interoperability across the service providers’ supply chain.

A recurring question is how will 5G create newopportunities to increase revenues? A recent survey from Ericsson Consumerlab  indicated consumers were willing to pay more for the performance improvements that 5G will bring. However, they also expected a range of new services, as well as new ways of paying for them.

To handle the increased complexity and the new opportunities, service providers must embark on a journey  to become a digital service provider. This isn’t just about the technology,  it also requires digitalization in all parts of operations, including, for example, data-driven business, experience-driven operations, agile service development with digital-first interactions (see figure 2 below)

Transformation to digital operations

Figure 2: Transformation to digital operations


The role of AI and zero-touch networks

Computational capacity continues to double roughly every 18 months, allowing forrapid improvements in software that resulting in more advancedAI (artificial intelligence) and  algorithms. This potentially provides an opportunity to quickly evolve to understand and interpret complex processes taking place in the service provider networks.

As  networks grow and become increasingly complex  – thanks to the introduction of new services at an increasing pace –  a higher degree of automation and less  manual intervention will be needed. Here, AI can play a crucial role by providinge a path towards zero-touch networks. AI could help service providers deal with the increasing number of parameters the network requires, and help the user of the system interact with it on a much higher level. The system should not only be able to execute what the human user wants, AI systems will autonomously come up with predictions, recommendations and decisions. Therefore, the understanding of the business goals and the user of the system is key to success.

This requires  operations to be data-driven and the Operations Support System (OSS) to be “cognitive”, which means that products and services used in the system need to be built with AI incorporated from the start. At Ericsson we call this approach “AI by Design”.

In designing an OSS AI solution that takes critical decisions affecting the performance of an entire network, the success of the system depended on more than building more efficient and accurate models and algorithms. Trust is an essential factor in the human-AI interaction, and if we want the users of our AI solutions to accept handing over more critical tasks and decisions, we need to design them to be trustworthy.

To understand more of the aspects of AI and how it can help evolve networks and operations with user experience in mind, download the report from the Ericsson User Experience Lab “Crafting trustable face for the AI brain – User Experience design role in cultivating human trust in AI systems”


AI can play a crucial role in zero-touch networks that reduce complexity by handling the increasing amount of network and service parameters, and by interacting with the user based on business goals rather than detailed instructions.

As you will find in our next blog post, technologies and capabilities such as virtualization, automation, AI, assurance and orchestration are required to achieve the vision of zero-touch networks – with implications regarding cost and time for the change management required to implement them. Stay tuned!

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