Telefónica plans to automate its 5G network with AI-driven SON

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 neighbour 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.