Telefónica plans AI-automated 5G, Cisco pushes virtual telco-box code

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Telefónica is one of the most vocal and enthusiastic operators about the 5G idea of a highly automated network, which can use artificial intelligence (AI) to plan and optimize a RAN dynamically according to the needs of particular use cases, and can proactively identify likely faults and heal itself.

At the recent Zero Touch & Carrier Automation Congress, the Spanish carrier said it was planning to increase its investment in automation tools, including a “cognitive self-optimizing network (SON)” technology based on AI.

This would see Telefónica making an early move towards what Rethink Technology Research, in its recent report about AI-driven SON, regards as a third generation of SON tools. The first focused on self-organizing more than self-optimizing and was largely concerned with housekeeping activities like automatic neighbor relations.

The second added a wider range of capabilities including many aspects of optimization, and extended SON systems beyond the RAN, into end-to-end networks and taking account of virtualization and cloud platforms. The third brings AI into play to enhance the performance, flexibility and value of SON still further.

Juan Carlos Garcia, Telefónica’s director of technology and architecture, said AI SON would be essential to cope with the complexity, and the huge numbers of moving parts, in a 5G network.

“The next step for 5G will be moving to a cognitive SON where AI and deep learning algorithms will be necessary to improve the efficiency of SON activities in our networks,” he told the conference. Most of the work will take place between 2021 and 2025, in tandem with 5G roll-out in many of the operator’s territories. That will include automation and programmability of core and transport networks, not just the RAN, while all these elements will be virtualized over time.

Telefónica has already invested in SON and virtualization through its huge UNICA program, and says it has deployed SON systems in 17 countries, automating functions such as site integration and carrier aggregation. It has shut down more than 1,000 different OSS systems over the past four years, and now has under 500.

It has started using AI to manage networks based on real time analysis of customer experience data and says similar ideas could be applied to the orchestration of virtualized networks, or of a mixture of virtual and physical elements.

As for UNICA, Telefónica has so far deployed platforms based on this architecture in  Argentina, Colombia, Germany and Peru and aims to extend this to seven more countries this year, including Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Spain and the UK.

Elsewhere, Cisco has clung to its integrated model – hardware and software inextricably bound together – for longer than most companies, but even the router giant has to accept the changes to its world, wrought by white box hardware, open source software and multivendor interoperability.

So the company has made one of its most radical changes of direction ever, agreeing to sell some of its software, particularly for service providers, separately from its hardware, and enabling the software to run on third party devices. This reveals the pressure Cisco is under, as its market share in core sectors, such as switching, has declined (though in data center switching it is still over 50%), partly because of challenges from companies which do separate their hardware and software.

The first major piece of service provider software to be offered independently of Cisco boxes is IOS XR, the operating system for telco networks, which will now be able to run on white boxes, merchant silicon and x86 servers.

Sumeet Arora, SVP of engineering for the service provider unit at Cisco, played down the idea that this change of strategy had been forced upon the vendor by developments like AT&T’s promise to deploy thousands of white box routers running an open source operating system, dNOS.

“We don’t see that as a threat and we have a strong track record of contributing to open source,” said Arora. “The majority want our integrated systems. The ability to consume innovation from different players, integrate those players and manage the whole lifecycle requires a lot of capability on the part of customers.”

Certainly, open interoperable white box networks are not a cheap option, despite their low upfront costs compared to traditional proprietary, integrated solutions. Many operators have talked of the investment required in integration services and inhouse skills to make open platforms sufficiently robust for commercial systems, and of the complexity of making products from different suppliers work together. BT, Orange and even the highly advanced SK Telecom have all pointed out the operational and cost challenges of working with multiple technology vendors.

“The ownership of the overall system and the network performance will fall on the integrator,” Arora told LightReading. “That is something the industry will have to work out together in cases where this happens.”