Technologies to Help Telecom Operators Reinvent Themselves

Author: Dimitris Mavrakis

written by ABI Research Senior Director Dimitris Mavrakis

The first two articles of this series discussed why and how telecom operators will transform themselves and argued that there are significant opportunities beyond the domain of connectivity and consumer services. This transition, which is often called digital transformation, is not one that will happen overnight, but one that will be a gradual evolution towards the end of the decade. However, it is necessary to start this transition now, as many competitors to telecom operators have either started this journey or are far advanced in pursuing these strategies. For example, hyperscalers have designed their business models and infrastructure as reusable platforms, giving them a monumental advantage compared to the monolithic, static technology stacks telecom operators use today.

It is for this reason that telecom operators need to start planning toward networks that become reusable, sustainable, and flexible platforms. The big question in the mind of any telecom Chief Technology Officer (CTO) is how do they start this transition in an actionable manner? This article will present a few technologies that telecom operators need to start embracing to plan this transition and become valuable partners for both hyperscalers and enterprises.

Technologies for key pillars

ABI Research has identified four key domains in the previous article which will contribute to the continued profitability and sustainability of the telecom operator in a fiercely competitive market. As also discussed in the previous article, a continued evolution in these key areas will likely create what is called “network effects”, in the very same manner the Apple app store created a wave of exponential innovation in the consumer domain. The technologies discussed below are starting points that will start to create these network effects, some of which are still in an early stage of development. Nevertheless, telecom operators need to closely monitor developments in these areas, invest in the development of these, and even perform early trials and deployments to take advantage of this innovation. Only then will they be able to understand the implications of these new technologies for their business and become early technology adopters.

Ultra-high-speed broadband

There are many new technologies being developed that can offer faster, more efficient, more sustainable, and lower-cost networks. In any case, telecom operators need to migrate to newer generations to take advantage of the latest technology improvements. For example, mobile operators need to maintain a strong 4G foundation while continuing to deploy 5G while sunsetting 2G/3G to free up precious spectrum resources. Similar evolutionary paths are also taking place in the fixed network domain with FTTx.

Technologies that can help telecom operators achieve these include:

  1. Advanced antennas for mobile broadband and cellular antennas are defining the performance of the cellular radio network, particularly in 5G with Massive Multiple-Input Multiple-Output (MIMO). As such, the performance of the next generation of antennas is improving network performance massively. Antennas that support multiple technologies (including Massive MIMO and Passive-Active Antennas), more efficient antennas (including direct feeding), and various other improvements are now drastically improving network performance. Huawei’s 64T BladeAAU uses metamaterials developed by the vendor to create transparent antennas with the use of "Frequency Selective Isolating and Penetrating" material technology. This allows the active part of the antenna to be placed behind the passive part without signal loss, leading to smaller size, weight, and cost.
  2. Optical networks are also advancing with Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) becoming affordable and important for fixed broadband. At the same time, many optical network vendors are pushing the boundaries of optical fiber, by expanding the number of wavelengths carried by a fiber, longer distances for transmission, and faster processing in optical modules.
  3. Last but not least, advances in end-to-end network design and deployment are offering deterministic networking, allowing new types of use cases and applications to be enabled by cellular networks. Advanced radio schedulers, end-to-end orchestration, and service prioritization are available in the market today, allowing operators to customize their networks for different use cases.

These are a few technologies that will allow operators to offer ultra-high-speed broadband. There are several more being developed at the equipment, site, and system-level in both mobile and fixed networks.

Network automation

Several new concepts are now helping operators to automate and optimize their networks, predominantly driven by Artificial Intelligence (AI)/Machine Learning (ML) algorithms and closed-loop automation. Several infrastructure vendors now offer zero-touch automation platforms that can help in the design, deployment, and maintenance of telecom networks. These platforms typically utilize Continuous Integration (CI)/Continuous Development (CD) processes to manage the network and are starting to rely on closed-loop automation mechanisms to reduce the number of faults, proactively predicting faults or even fixing problems without the involvement of a human technician. These can be deployed today by major infrastructure vendors and the open platforms several operators are deploying will likely introduce new types of innovation from the market. These developments are moving towards truly automated networks, where these engines are allowing the predictive and closed-loop management of complex environments to proactively address faults and improve customer experience.

Sustainable networks

Although network sustainability had not been a major area of focus in the past, it is now a big strategic priority for all telecom operators. These are longer term initiatives and several operators have announced 2030 targets. Nevertheless, there are several technologies available to telecom operators today:

  • Using AI/ML to reduce energy consumption across the network. Modern algorithms can predict user behavior and traffic patterns and modify the state of the network proactively.
  • Selective switch off allows modern base stations to switch off when not utilized or can modify their components (especially energy-hungry power amplifiers) to follow traffic patterns and reduce power consumption.
  • Component improvements with materials like Gallium Nitride, graphene, and Silicon Photonics aiming to radically enhance the way networks perform and cost.
  • Finally, improvements in the generation of energy are progressing rapidly with new types of generators (including ammonia-based) as well are renewable energy. Several infrastructure vendors offer integrated cell site solutions that are optimal in terms of energy, cost, and performance.

Network as a Platform

The final, and arguably the most important part, of the network to explore new business opportunities is the platform approach, when static, silo-based networks need to become horizontal platforms with open interfaces. Indeed, there are several technologies that allow this today:

  • Cloud-native platforms allow network functions to be deployed throughout the network and scale up/down accordingly. New functions can be introduced into the network seamlessly while unused functions can be decommissioned. The integration of the network and cloud in ICT platforms will provide additional synergies and will enable new types of applications.
  • Open Application Program Interfaces (APIs) allow service exposure within the telecom network and to third parties. Although not a new concept, market maturity, and enterprise digitation efforts translate to renewed interest in accessing network capabilities.
  • New network protocols, including IPv6 and SRv6, are improving the way networks are designed and operate, allowing for more flexibility and higher performance.
  • Network slicing and Multi-Access Edge Computing (MEC) are also diversifying the telecom operator value proposition, in both offering their network as a platform but also to create new types of applications.

Final takeaways and next steps

Many of these technologies are interlinked and will likely be part of a broader transformation puzzle. For example, telecom operators will likely embark on a more comprehensive journey to make their operations more sustainable, automated, and flexible rather than focus on one of these domains exclusively. It will also be necessary for national regulators to place policies that promote the deployment of these advanced networks, which help operators address societal and enterprise challenges. Telecom networks have proven to be fundamental in difficult times, including during the pandemic, and regulators must continue to consider them as critical national infrastructure. As shown in this series of articles, continuous focus on new technologies is in the best interest of telecom operators as well as policymakers.

This article proves that technologies that can start this transition exist today and are well within the reach of telecom operators globally. It is imperative for telecom operators to explore these technologies and partner with suppliers that look to the future, who will help them evolve their technology platforms and business models towards 6G and future fixed broadband.