Network automation needed “urgently” to make telco sector viable – ETSI

  • Automating the telco network is “urgently” needed to tackle the operational and business challenges in the 5G and 6G eras, according to ETSI
  • Network automation will improve telco finances as it is expected to lower opex and improve services
  • A dedicated group at ETSI is working on a framework to define the specifications and benefits of the automated network

Automating the telco network will not only deliver benefits in tackling increasing complexity in the 5G and 6G eras, but can also ensure the whole industry remains economically viable and capable of delivering services with agility and speed, according to the heads of an ETSI group focused on zero-touch specifications.

ETSI Zero Touch Network and Service Management (ZSM) group chair Diego Lopez, who is also a senior technology expert at Telefónica, and Nurit Sprecher, vice chair of the ZSM group and Nokia’s head of management, virtualisation and application enablement standardisation, admitted that the road to telco network automation is long and challenging but stressed that this is an “urgent” necessity.

“We are expected to deliver and support diverse use cases with 5G, 5G-Advanced and later with 6G, with an extremely demanding range of requirements in terms of latency, throughput, reliability, coverage, security, costs” and more, with the supporting networks capable of being dynamically configured, adapted and scaled, explained Sprecher.

This demanding set of requirements gives rise to a lot of challenges. “We actually need to provide unprecedented operational agility to allow services to be rapidly deployed [and] dynamically adapted” and at the same time, “ensure the network performance, full coverage [and] network capacity can satisfy the requirements of the active services, and any fault or degradation that might impact the services should be resolved. That’s why we need this automation,” which is required not just to enable the automated processes that human teams would not be able to deliver, but also to “do it in a way that is economically sustainable and… [can] support this highly diverse service portfolio”, noted Sprecher.

Lopez concurred, adding that helping the sector move closer to automating the network is high on ETSI’s agenda and “is, to some extent, part of what we need to survive and to keep the whole industry [economically] sustainable”.

Asked about the meaning of automation for Telefónica and telcos in general, Lopez said that it will ultimately enable superior services, developed and delivered in a more efficient way. For Telefónica, it will translate into cost reductions that will play an important role in a European market that is “fairly saturated with many, many different operators, highly regulated, with margins being reduced”.

He added that the goal of reducing costs and keeping them under control is of high importance for the sustainability of the telco environment in general, because “being a business in which you’re not making money doesn’t make any sense.”

On the other hand, with increasing automation, telcos will be “in the position of providing a wider and better portfolio of services, without increasing these costs” and being able to “follow the trend towards personalised services”, he said. 

Under current operating conditions such efforts are “totally unfeasible”, as the human resources required would be impossible to develop and maintain, explained Lopez, who was a participant in the Orchestration evolution and the promise of NaaS discussion that was part of TelecomTV’s recent Network Automation Summit.

And, little by little, there are signs that increasing levels of automation are being introduced into telco networks, the most recent example being that of United Arab Emirates (UAE) operator du, which is deploying software-defined access network technology from Nokia “to enable zero-touch operations” – see Nokia and du enable Zero-Touch Access with SDAN.

Where is ETSI on the specifications journey?

The industry has long recognised that automation will play an increasing role in telco operations, which is why ETSI formed the ZSM group in December 2017, since when it has been continuously working on defining end-to-end architectures and solutions designed for closed-loop automation and optimised for data-driven machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms. The work of the body is supported by more than 60 members and participants, including major operators NTT Docomo, Deutsche Telekom, Rakuten Mobile, Telefónica, Telstra and Verizon, and vendors such as Cisco, Ericsson, IBM, Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) and Nokia.

Lopez explained the group has been working on identifying and setting the foundations of network automation, specifically closed-loop architectures that allow multi-domain collaboration. “Modern networks by themselves are highly heterogeneous – the idea is to deal with this heterogeneity in a consistent way,” the chair of the group noted.

According to Lopez, the foundations developed by the ZSM group allow for the integration of different domains, technologies and segments that will result in sets of services with various functionalities.

Sprecher noted that the ultimate target is to achieve the highest possible degree of automation, ideally 100%, but that’s a long way off.  “We need to enable full autonomous operation that is governed by high-level business goals and policies, and then the autonomous network is able to do the self-management, self-organisation and self-configuration” without human intervention beyond initial conception of the business intent, she stated.

The group is also focusing efforts on understanding the use cases and the requirements that will be needed, so it can design an end-to-end framework that offers “scalability, modularity, extensibility and flexibility. This framework will support this transfer of autonomy from the operator to the network using intent-based interfaces” and will provide the capabilities to integrate AI-based functions and enable closed-loop automation, added Sprecher.

Additionally, the ZSM group is exploring the potential of applying a digital twin approach to zero-touch automation in an effort to unlock new opportunities in the enterprise sector.

Clearly, though, this is a significant challenge and one that will take a great deal of time. The ETSI group published three sets of foundational specifications in the summer of 2019: GS ZSM 001 (ZSM Requirements); GS ZSM 002 (ZSM Reference Architecture); and GS ZSM 007 (ZSM Terminology). And then in mid-2021 followed this up with three more publications: ETSI GS ZSM 003, which defines end-to-end network slicing management and orchestration architecture blueprint and solutions; ETSI GS ZSM 009-1, which specifies the enablers for closed-loop automation; and ETSI GR ZSM 010, which covers the general security aspects related to the ZSM framework and solutions, and potential mitigation options. 

The group’s latest plenary meeting, held in person at ETSI’s headquarters in Sophia Antipolis, France, alongside online participation, concludes today.  

- Yanitsa Boyadzhieva, Deputy Editor, TelecomTV

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