Industry Voices—Sharma: AI must take center stage in 5G

5G
The single biggest network management challenge that operators face is managing video traffic. (Getty Images)
Chetan Sharma

In this six-part series on 5G network and digital innovation, I am discussing some of my observations and suggestions on how the wireless ecosystem can come together to address an unprecedented set of opportunities that will come before us in the next decade.

In the first piece, I laid the basic thesis of why 5G is different and how operators should think about strategy and network economics. In the second part of this series, we looked at the cost element and role software will play in managing costs and expanding EBTIDA. In the third piece, we explored the revenue equation. The fourth column delved into the measurements needed to give us a better picture of the 5G evolution. This column deals with AI in the 5G network. Software and AI has become the part of the industry vernacular, but we need be judicious about how we apply AI to solve the thorniest networking problems.

The notion of using “intelligence” to manage network operations is not a new one. In fact, the movement of software defined radio and network function virtualization started a long time ago. Academic literature goes even further back into the decade. However, these advances in our thinking haven’t quite yielded the promised ROI. As we enter the 5G cycle, AI must take center stage in how various functions and nodes in the network work in sync to optimize for the highest performance and lowest cost simultaneously. Operators who are able to do that judiciously will have a competitive advantage.

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The single biggest network management challenge that the operators face is that of the managing of the video traffic. While new sources of traffic will emerge in the next few years, the single biggest source of network congestion is still likely to be video that will itself undergo significant evolution from SD to HD to VR to holograms. Traditional optimization techniques are just not adequate. We have to learn to apply AI to manage the traffic in real-time. Furthermore, new types of traffic streams will tax the network.

We built the most accurate cellular data traffic model early on that predicted how the next ten years of growth might look like. The 5G data growth model is much more complex and unpredictable as the number of variables are likely to growth exponentially. We need new ways to address this traffic dilemma. This encapsulates traffic management at the RAN, edge data centers, core, and the cloud. New elements of the network that help orchestrate and optimize the traffic are needed that learn and apply intelligence in real-time. There is a straight line from the use of software for automation and network management to reduction of capex and Opex. CFOs should take notice and actively work with their CTO office to plan the 5G roadmap.

Additionally, the new types of data both ephemeral and permanent that will need to be understood for it will lead the industry to new billion-dollar industries. How operators handle data will be key to how they are able to monetize the 4th wave more effectively, how they are able to build the data platform that attracts developers and new ideas, and how they build sustainable advantage for the decade.

We already established in earlier columns that software will play a central role in 5G. This means, operators will have to beef up the expertise. There is miniscule AI expertise at the operators so they should proactively collaborate with entities that do. In addition to the traditional vendors, they should reach out to non-traditional and upcoming players who are laser focused on specific aspect of network traffic management, or virtualization, or data analytics or edge computing orchestration, etc. The open source projects are also a great source of collaboration and making operational breakthroughs. They should also invest heavily in building expertise on orchestration of intelligence, distributed computing, and creating new revenue economies around data.

If 5G is going to become a platform that inspires new capabilities, industries and billion-dollar revenue streams at a feverish pace, AI has to become an integral layer of the 5G network fabric that not only optimizes for the lowest Bits/s/Hz/m2/joule/$ but also the highest performance for both network-centric operations but also application-specific demands. To have a shot at the applications revenue, operators have to first build robust networks and manage video traffic in a way that supports EBITDA expectations.

The combination of 5G and AI will be potent. It will transform not only network management but help solve numerous hard problems – drug discovery, precision farming, cloud gaming, holographic entertainment, edge robotics, VR surgery, and much more

As we wrap up the last few weeks of this decade, one must take pause and marvel at all the progress we have made over the last 10 years. For the wireless industry, the growth of 4G LTE along with smartphones and cloud clearly were transformative as they collectively shaped the global technology ecosystem and the economy at large. Our Connected Intelligence thesis is that we are in a unique technological evolutionary cycle wherein many seismic trends are occurring at the same time. The magic of serendipity happens at the edges, at the intersections of domains and industries. 5G and AI along with other synchronous s-curve technologies will create a fast pace decade of disruption. Hopefully, industry will come together to focus on the right software strategies and product roadmap as we step into the next decade of hyper-growth.

Chetan Sharma is CEO of Chetan Sharma Consulting, an 18-year young management consulting firm and is an advisor to CXOs and boards of companies in the wireless industry. Over his 25 years in the industry, he has worked with operators on all five continents and has the rare distinction of advising management teams for each of the top 9 global mobile operators. Chetan has written 15 books on various wireless topics and his research work has helped shape many strategic decisions and dialogue in the industry. He is curator of industry’s premier brainstorming summit Mobile Future Forward. More information at www.chetansharma.com. You can follow his musings at @chetansharma.

"Industry Voices" are opinion columns written by outside contributors--often industry experts or analysts--who are invited to the conversation by Fierce staff. They do not represent the opinions of Fierce.

 

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