The coming years will see the application of AI technology across all sectors of the economy and life. The telecoms industry is no different. Although I’ve been commenting on telco-sector AI in the context of “TelcoFuturism” for some time (link), and co-ran a workshop on it in May 2017 (link), the last few months have seen a notable upswing in interest. I’d say that the public use-cases now seem to be significantly in advance of those for blockchain, in terms of potentially-transformational technologies.
That said, it can still be hard for many executives to grasp exactly what is likely to change, and when, for AI/telecoms combinations. This is highlighted by the surge in AI-related panels, presentations and even complete streams at industry conferences – although sometimes I see more interest from generalist AI people about the telecoms vertical, versus telecom specialists looking at what’s new.
Both sides of the equation have large volumes of obscure acronyms, multi-layered technology stacks, and complex volume chains – which can mean that mutual understanding is often confined to narrow niches. AI covers machine- and deep-learning, language processing, machine-vision and much more. Telecoms includes vast realms of internal systems and processes that are unknown to most who are not insiders – domains like core networks, OSS/BSS, network optimisation, toll fraud and service-assurance are alien to those not steeped in the industry.
One of the ways I’ve been using to “set the scene” for describing AI/telecoms intersections is to simplify and categorise the use-case areas. I count three, possibly four, large “buckets” into which a variety of telecom AI impacts will fit. These buckets are not based on either specific AI or telecoms technology slices, but more on understandable business functions and roles:
- Dealing with customers
- Managing operations
- Creating new services
- (External risks)
Within each of these areas, there are many, many sub-sectors – and also some overlap.
“Dealing with customers” can include everything from voice/text chatbots for customer-service, through to predictions of which customers are least-happy and may “churn” to competitors. Where telcos have retail outlets, it could incorporate various in-store technologies, or it could be about smarter web-consoles for B2B customers running complex managed services.
“Managing operations” is even more diverse – it could be fault prediction for network elements, optimising the 100s of configuration variables for radio networks, spotting fraudulent traffic to international premium-rate numbers, allocating engineering resources more productively, or protecting against hackers and malware. There are hundreds of possible uses here, which mostly overlay on top of existing operational/business support systems (OSS/BSS) See also my recent post (link)
“New services” also spans a range of areas, but broadly splits between AI-enabled and AI-enabling services. An AI-enabled service could be a local-language voice assistant added to a cable operator’s set-top box or remote control. Or it could be the provision of integrated “smart city” solutions including video-cameras and security analytics. AI-enablement could include offering “edge” servers for hosting local processing, milliseconds transport-time away from a device, or it could be the provision of anonymised bulk data for others to apply algorithms to. Telco opportunities with IoT+AI include both enablement and enabled services, in numerous manifestations.
The “risks” category includes a diffuse set of possibilities by which AI might harm the telecom industry, or dampen demand for services. Smarter devices (eg autonomous vehicles) will be able to host their own offline image processing & route-planning locally, rather than needing realtime connectivity at 5G speeds/latencies. Another threat could be customers’ smart assistants renegotiating price-plans on their behalf – after crowdsourcing millions of conversations to deduce how best to game the retention staff’s scripts and objections. (Of course in the latter example, the customer-retention team could themselves be bots). Numerous types of automated “least-cost X” and arbitrage engines are likely to emerge. Various security risks are also probable here too.
Clearly, using just these four "buckets" misses much of the fine-grained detail. But I find it helpful as a starting point, as most top-level industry issues apply differently to each.
Consider input data, for example – for both customer management and operations, telcos have abundant historical records and ongoing data collection that may generate terabytes per day. But for the former, privacy considerations often come to the fore in terms of regulation and risk, while this is far less of a concern for internal operational data, for example on how the network is running. For new services, almost by definition the focus is on collecting/processing/transporting new data, rather than deriving conclusions from existing sets.
This four-way framework is also useful for thinking about different types of ROI model - split broadly between impacting existing revenues, existing costs, new revenues and potential changes to underlying assumptions.
I'll be covering these topics in more depth in various upcoming presentations and reports, as well as looking at other areas of telco-linked innovation such as blockchain, 5G and enterprise verticals. Please get in touch if you would like more detail, or are interested in internal workshops, external support through events or white papers, or are seeking ongoing strategic advisory support.