From the late 19th century when Strowger invented the stepping switch, replacing human operators with dial service, telecommunications has enthusiastically embraced automation. And yet, that enthusiasm has waned in recent decades, with telecommunications operations falling behind other industries, such as aviation and manufacturing. We’re now coming full circle with other players in digital technology, such as IT and webscale companies, who are pushing the telecommunications industry to automate more quickly. Despite worker resistance and trust issues from some operational teams, most telecom operators recognize it’s time to accelerate the automation journey.
Digital technologies have permeated almost every aspect of human life. At the center of all this activity, the network is expected to respond almost instantaneously, with latencies less than 50ms, scaling to meet terabyte shifts in demand, and providing service reliability equal to the many mission-critical processes that rely on it, from autonomous cars to tele-surgery. Meeting these demands will require response times in many areas of the network that will simply exceed the capabilities of manual processes.
Telecom operators will also not be able to meet these demands economically without automation. Yet, despite these compelling drivers, the automation journey may be less about technology and economics and more about workforce management and trust.
Workforce concern is always the first point of resistance when it comes to automation. Workers are understandably concerned when automation threatens their livelihood. However, automation is about replacing repetitive tasks and creating the time to pursue more creative work.
Automation will enable network operators to move from being network-centric to customer-centric. Where today much of their operational workforce focuses on keeping the network running, in the future, they will be freed up to focus on tailoring services to customers and creating new innovative offers. In this way, the automated network will become a platform for enabling greater creativity and happier customers.
Along with skills, there is also the question of trust. Simply put, it takes time to have the same level of trust in an automated routine as one you have always done manually. We see this in the pushback against self-driving cars, although statistics are clear that humans are much worse drivers and suffer far more accidents. The same is true in operating networks. Human errors are far more likely than machines to make errors that bring down the network. At the MPLS congress, Google estimated that “about 70 percent of failures happen when a [human] management operation is in progress.”
One trust-building trick when introducing automation is to provide information on the progress of the automated task. Many of us will remember the feeling, from the early days of desktop computers, of clicking on something and then waiting for minutes for something to happen, unsure of whether the computer had locked up or was actually doing the task. Programmers learned quickly the value of spinning hourglasses and progression bars for keeping the user’s trust. Similarly, it is important when automating operational processes in the network, to monitor progress and keep the operator informed about the status.
Automation should also be implemented iteratively, starting with small obvious steps that build trust and provide a foundation for more complex ones later. Allow the operator to check and validate the actions before proceeding. It should also always be possible to pause a process and roll it back quickly if something does go wrong.
Of course, automation does take time to implement, which seems counter-intuitive when you’re swamped with repetitive tasks. However, automation is a strategic, long-term investment which you have to prioritize. What the history of automation has shown us over and over again is that automation provides a platform on which we build new opportunities. Those that embrace it now will be tomorrow’s success stories.
Look out for my next blog where I’ll discuss the different types of network automation including equipment configuration, service delivery, network/service assurance and traffic optimization.
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