The game changer
How Sami Komulainen flipped his thinking and realized a vast network transformation at Elisa
Sami Komulainen, Elisa’s Executive Vice President of Production, is Finnish. And an engineer. Someone who gets the job done without fuss or fanfare. Yet if anyone deserves a splashy celebration of his accomplishments in telecom automation, it's this man.
A network in need of transformation
Cast back to 2008, when Komulainen was first assigned to lead Elisa’s Network Management team. The situation was bleak. A growing number of network incidents, high dropped call rates, and a bevy of customer complaints that regularly made headlines with Finnish press. Time-intensive, manual responses slowed the team’s ability to respond. And, even more worrying, there were signs that 3G data consumption was changing so dramatically they risked even greater discontent when the 4G traffic surge hit.
Change would require turning
their thinking upside down.
“At that time, management thought we should outsource, like many other operators were doing, because maybe those vendors could handle this better than us,” Komulainen says. “I challenged that thinking, because after we outsource, what happens then? It’s out of our hands. We knew we had to do something else.”
Sami Komulainen, born 1976, joined Elisa in 1999 and has worked in the company in several different roles in network operation and management. Currently he leads the Production unit and is a member of Elisa’s Management Team.
He has a master’s degree in industrial engineering and management (M.Sc).
Komulainen was no stranger to tough situations. He’d proven himself a “fixer”— someone who could be trusted to identify a problem and repair it. Before his assignment to Network Management, he’d run the Delivery organization, which provisioned and fine-tuned fixed line services for households and enterprises in Finland. A team of 60 program managers spent their mornings printing out tasks, then distributing assignments to the field via fax and, sometimes, even by car. Komulainen streamlined operations toward a mobile-based system. This allowed the field team to manage their own tasks and expedite their projects. At the time, without smartphones, automation was novel, and Komulainen’s changes transformed Elisa’s Delivery organization.
The path to predictability
His success made him a natural to join the incident-plagued Network Management team. Outsourcing wasn’t the answer, he says, but he wasn’t certain what else was.
Understanding how the customer perceived quality was key. Adjusting how Elisa managed the network to meet those expectations was also important. As Komulainen soon concluded: change would require turning their thinking upside down.
“We had a dream, a vision, that we could handle this without manual, human-based operations. And we knew that to understand the problem, we had to build up visibility. The target state was to predict incidents. That was the main message to top management: better quality, better efficiency.”
With approval from the management in 2008, Komulainen launched the initial stage of his network transformation project: data monitoring. Although, they’d have little to show management for a long time. “There was no low hanging fruit that we could take to our top management. We needed time to build up those breakthroughs,” he says.
In fact, they spent the next 13 months recording traffic and events in the network for comparison, and then drilling down to understand the difference – tactics Komulainen says are “at the root of this kind of predictive model.”
By 2010, Elisa had the first version of an automated Service Operations Center (SOC). Another two years before closed-loop automation methods were well established, which then allowed machine learning to really kick in, enabling the team to use key performance indicators to both automate the monitoring of customer services and the follow-on actions.
The big data payoff
Now the team turned to optimizing the network. By this time, with so much learning about telecom automation, Elisa had started to build cross-functional teams, pulling specialists from mobile and IT who could do the work in-house.
Once again, Komulainen concluded that change would require turning their thinking upside down. In fact, they would need to completely rethink network planning and construction. And the payoff was huge.
Network optimization is cited as a major contributor to Elisa achieving carbon neutrality in 2020, after cutting its footprint by more than 82 percent in four years.
Through data comparisons, the team learned that capacity requirements dropped in the evenings. Komulainen says they decided to ramp down their base stations overnight, confident they could reverse the decision if demand rose. The move was a success and cut electricity consumption by up to 14 percent. In fact, network optimization is cited as a major contributor to Elisa achieving carbon neutrality in 2020, after cutting its footprint by more than 82 percent in four years.
Komulainen’s team also learned that, in a mature network, they didn’t need to build more capacity and wait for customers, an approach followed by many operators. Rather they leveraged big data and analytics to predict future bottlenecks, and then only built where they knew capacity would be needed.
Elisa’s 4G pricing strategy also benefited from the success of Komulainen’s telecom automation strategy. Way back, when the team foresaw that 4G would create a massive increase in traffic on the network, instead of capping and tariffing, Elisa was first in its region to introduce unlimited data. They opted to continue this speed based pricing model in 4G in 2014. Competitors followed and today, Finland is a world leader in mobile data usage. “Now we are seeing 40 times more data consumption than 10 years ago,” Komulainen says. In fact, when COVID hit in 2020, mobile traffic surged by more than 30 percent in one night, without incident.
“When we started that pricing model we were told investments would go through the roof,” he says. “That was where we needed the automation. We just built to customer need.
“We have built up 3G, 4G, and 5G networks, and at the same time, our yearly investment level is 12 percent of revenue,” adds Komulainen. “Our mobile service revenue has increased steadily, year by year, but the operating costs are flat.”
Today, a decade after that automated SOC got started, there are 73 percent fewer customer-impacted incidents, 51,000 automated tasks performed every day, and a virtual Network Operation Center (vNOC) that predicts and prevents 96 percent of all incidents.
The secret to success
Elisa has made a habit of being first. First to automate its switchboard as early as 1929. First to launch a commercial GSM, 3G and 4G network. And more recently, first to market with a commercial 5G service. Today 5G subscribers top 200,000, and coverage extends to more than half the population.
Komulainen credits the widely automated implementation and planning processes for the smooth introduction of the new technology.
“From an efficiency angle, we automated anything that we did manually. In a way, we have a zero person NOC,” he says. “When we add a new network layer, it means more complexity in the network and in how we handle synchronization and handovers. But it’s been easier for us because of the automation we have in place.”
Komulainen points to the now 100-strong organization of software developers in Finland as a success for its telecom automation development. “It’s a huge transformation for all our people into different roles,” he says. “People transformed their skills from manual operations to automation development. So, our people have a much more interesting path to develop their skills, away from the routine tasks in network operations. Now we provide an environment where we innovate and develop and maintain our automation.”
Elisa Automate: A network for new business
Following the success of its automation strategy, Komulainen once more found himself turning his thinking upside down before taking his next step.
He knew what the team had accomplished in automating Elisa’s network was big. So, he started to share those learnings outside the corporation.
“There were a lot of questions and comments from vendors and other operators worldwide,” he says. “This was definitely something that they needed too.”
The team had automated Elisa’s network, planning, and commissioning, and now Komulainen proposed a new business strategy: they would productize and commercialize those learnings and sell what is essentially a virtual NOC. It’s a strategy that is rare in the industry – an operator selling software to its peers - but reflects the innovative spirit that Elisa fosters and Komulainen personifies.
Automation changes everything
The success of the entire program, and its contribution to Elisa’s overall strategy, has perhaps caught Komulainen by surprise. “It’s a game changer,” he says.
“I could never have understood in the beginning the kind of total change we would need in our thinking and in our practices. Our aim was just to handle this quality and efficiency issue,” Komulainen says.
“In the first phase, we had a target, but we didn’t have any kind of understanding of how to do it. There were no instructions, no one to ask,” says Komulainen. “It was a lot of experimentation. We would fail and start all over and fail again and learn from that. But we had very good support from top management. It was kind of a gift when we made mistakes. That was the main thinking.”
When asked what scares him most about what might be coming with 5G, Komulainen is predictably understated: “Everything is faster and smoother and easier with 5G.
“I’m an engineer,” Komulainen adds. “I believe that technology is making our life better.”