In a recent webinar by Total Telecom and Oracle, speakers discussed the integral nature of network automation in the 5G era, arguing that operators can no afford to let this key tool be an afterthought

While many operators around the world have been rolling out 5G for over a year now, the industry has so far only scratched the surface of the new technology’s potential in both business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C) settings. From new services like cloud gaming and virtual reality, to the private networks for enterprise partners, the complexity of 5G networks is going to increase rapidly in the coming years – so much so that managing them manually will soon become unfeasible.
Speaking in a recent webinar on the value of zero-touch networks presented by Total Telecom and Oracle, Enrique Blanco, Group CTIO, Telefonica, said that automation had now become a necessity and required a change of mindset from previous generations of mobile technology.
“In 4G and FTTH (fibre-to-the-home) you can first deploy the network and then later on define the automation and analysis tools,” he explained. “But for 5G, you cannot build the network without the OSS (operations support system) because it is unmanageable. They must be in parallel. This is not only changing the ecosystem of the traditional provider, but also the ecosystems of the tools that follow the automation, how you can do it, and how you can mix different capabilities of the tools for a single strategic goal.”
He went on to describe automation as “absolutely mandatory”, arguing that without it the network cannot grow to offer new services.
While it may seem natural to be adverse to ceding control of important parts of your network to Ai and automation, soon it will simply be unfeasible for operators to manage their networks manually.
“With 5G there’s more complexity, there’s more moving parts, more software… We can’t expect human beings to understand all of this complexity – it’s simply not the way to go,” added Leonard Sheahan, Senior Director, Product Marketing at Oracle Communications. “We have to design for automation from the outset.”
TDC Group’s CIO Antonietta Mastroianni echoed this view, arguing that a modular, greenfield approach was preferable in this regard to help prepare the network for the raft of new and often unexpected services 5G can unlock. 
“We don’t know what the future is going to look like – technology evolves so fast,” said Mastroianni. “So, we really believe in building new, modular architecture for the net stack, where you decouple all the complexity that comes from the old product – both B2C and B2B. If we build an integration layer which is flexible, modular, and scalable, then this is the best approach towards being futureproof.”
But while the additional complexity of 5G is surely the key driving force for automation, this is in fact a transformation that has been happening for some time, beginning with the 4G era. Mounir Ladki, President and CTO at MYCOM OSI, described the journey as a gradual change in conversation between operators and solution specialists.
He described how five years ago, companies would deliver data and ask for a report to be created, which decision-makers would read and act upon. Here the focus was primarily around the visibility and discovery of network issues. Moving forward, around three years ago, the discussion had changed to efficiency, with the tactical deployment of automation now sought out to deliver crucial improvements. At this stage in the journey, Ladki describes the operators goals as “outcome-based”, no longer focusing on visibility but on action. Now, the discussions are going beyond efficiency and are focussing on turning network data into an intelligence engine that drives closed-loop automation  – ultimately, they are asking the question of how they can deliver connectivity as a service to their customers.
“This is the next big monetisation opportunity for telcos in the next two to three years with 5G,” said Ladki. “It can be delivered as a private network that you build for an enterprise or as a 5G slice – you need to monetise the service level agreement. Without automation, you cannot do it.”
Automation is blurring the lines between the network and IT services, bringing together stakeholders in a much more open environment to discuss their needs and potential use cases. 
“The boundary between the network and IT is really collapsing. Best practices are coming together from both ends and this is driving some forms of automation,” explained Ladki. “We were so compartmentalised in the telco world […] and this is now being reworked, re-engineered into something that is much more open, with agility where you can bring together different parts to create use cases and drive this automation.”
Of course, with new use cases and services becoming available around the world, this is also a matter of company ability. If competitors move more quickly to adopt AI and automation, telcos will soon find themselves outcompeted in crucial, emerging revenue streams.
“If the automation journey is not fast enough, you could find yourself in a position where you cannot leverage the potential that comes with 5G – you will not be able to leverage your investment in the network,” said Mastroianni. “It’s really a must if you want to evolve.”
5G has the potential to be transformational, not only for the telecoms sector, but for nearly every facet of our consistently more connected lives. Automation within the network will be at the heart of delivering this new reality, playing a crucial role that cannot be understated. In order to deliver on the promise of 5G, automation is now a must.
“I’ve been in this sector maybe 37 years and, believe me, this is the most exciting time to be in telecoms,” said Blanco.
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