When five 9s are not enough, AI is needed to extend automation

CXO Interviews

Michaël Trabbia, CTO at Orange Group, talked to Annie Turner about the telco of the future.

Michaël Trabbia joined Orange Group’s Executive Committee as Chief Technology and Innovation Officer on 1 September 2020. He oversees the group’s Technology & Global Innovation division, with the main ambition of strengthening data and AI at the heart of the operator’s innovation. He was formerly CEO of Orange Belgium.

Orange Group has made much of its determination to grow beyond connectivity and build innovation on and round its connectivity solution. To quote Trabbia’s colleague, the CEO of Orange Business Services, Helmut Reisinger, Orange is a network-native digital services company. In line with its Engage2025 strategy to drive new growth, in 2021, 41% of the group’s revenue and activities come from digital, IT and integration services, and it is on track for this to rise to 55% by 2025.

Telco of the future

Trabbia begins the interview saying, “We’re building to become telco of the future, which indeed will be a cloud-based infrastructure. We’re doing that via PIKEO…[announced by Orange in the summer which] will answer two important needs – the first is for on-demand connectivity that adapts to various services with the right QoS depending on what you need. For instance, it might be bandwidth, or latency, or reliability.”
 
He continues, “The second topic is a zero-touch network for better resilience of network services because we see how telcos are becoming more vital for the country, for the economy, and we need to move to the next level of resilience – and we can only do that leveraging AI for self-adapting networks.
 
“Basically, we [will] move from people supervising networks and tickets to people managing algorithms which will manage the network in real time. Both are really big evolutions for our industry. They will change how we build and operate a network and a big change in skills – many more skills in integration, AI and security too, and they will be cloud-based.”

Cloud native

In the Orange universe, are cloud-based and cloud-native the same thing (as opposed to lifting and shifting legacy applications and systems into the cloud)? “Yes,” Trabbia says, “Cloud-native networks. We’re starting with the core network. We’re separating the software and the hardware, and we’re moving out to the RAN, where we are supporting Open RAN with Deutsche Telekom, Vodafone, Telefonica and TIM to bring these cloud-native to the radio part of the network.”
 
This is, he insists, “Absolutely needed if we want to have this zero-touch network, and this self-adapting network, and we need to be much more agile in the way we operate the network, and have AI managing that, and to have real-time adaption and not just after one week or one day, change the parameters; we need to move to real-time, self-adapting network.”
 
How much of these ambitions are down to 5G? He acknowledges, “When I talk about zero touch, this is clearly about massive automation and AI to manage the network [and] 5G is very important for that but it’s not only 5G, it’s also the move towards cloud-native networks and changing the network supervision by leveraging AI. A number of things in parallel.”
 
He elaborates, “At Orange, we mutualise network supervision for the core function and this is something we have in my team, in Poland and Romania; they do this network supervision globally for several affiliates in Europe, most of them I would say.” Trabbia says that the use of more AI enables greater automation, giving the example of there being a large number of people in a street because of a demonstration, say.
 
Today this resulting saturation in traffic triggers many tickets and alarms on the network, creating huge data sets to which Orange must respond. He says, “Tomorrow, this will be automatically analysed and dealt with because the AI would have learned how to handle this efficiently and deal with it, and you won’t need human intervention. Today, we would have been too late because by the time…a human reacted,” because the demo will have moved on.

Progressing AI

Trabbia says, “This is a change of mindset and paradigm”. How far away is he and his team from this vision of tomorrow? He explains, “With AI you start with some use cases and try to pick the more relevant ones. Then you implement them, then you do them at scale, running in the network.
 
Orange launched a three-year programme in 2021 with the aim of bringing big benefits from automating the network at scale. He says, “This year we started to bring automation at scale in the network. We will continue with 5G Standalone (SA) with network capabilities, and with Open RAN, to bring more opportunities and become even more efficient in the way we do it.”
 
What does he mean by big benefits? “What we follow is availability of the network, it’s one of the [key performance indicators [KPIs] that’s important to understand. Globally the network is really good and now we are talking about the number of nines that you put in your availability.
 
“We used to say the five-nines – 99.999 – availability as a target but we believe we will go further. Each time you add a 9, it becomes more difficult because it means that you divide by 10 the length of the outages or the issue of the network. Clearly this is the KPI we want to improve to this programme, and we believe it’s critical to get there.
 
He added, “I don’t want to give a figure for the moment because it’s under development, and we need to make sure we are able to reach our targets but definitely the target is to add more nines to the equation.”

The PIKEO effect

How is PIKEO going to affect progress? Also is it primarily lab-based at Orange’s R&D facility at Lannion, in Brittany, France, or will it also run in the real world?
 
Trabbia says, “It’s really a greenfield operation, that means we test everything that we believe is going to be part of the telco in the future. In real life, we will be moving from legacy to this target infrastructure but what is important in Pikeo is that first, we make sure that we can integrate different players and partners because in this future world, we will have more fragmented networks which will be leveraged thanks to virtualisation, different hardware and software but also the RAN, which will be split between the distributed and centralised units, so we need to integrate those equipment and make sure it can all work together. “
 
He explains, “That’s why interoperability is key and that’s what we’re working on at PIKEO, to make sure it all works together. The second one is skills and for us, it’s about learning and developing skills to build and operate the networks of tomorrow. This is a fantastic opportunity to develop our skills.
 
How important are APIs in all of this and what is Orange’s approach to it? Trabbia agrees, “This is absolutely part of the telco of the future when we are virtualising this network, it will be really based on software cloud native so it means we need to add APIs and integration at scale – but it also means that we need to standardise as much as we can on those APIs and the orchestration part.
 
“We support ONAP [Open Network Automation Platform], for instance, to bring [about] this orchestration which is fundamental: it’s absolutely critical to have it [for] this softwarised network, with standardised APIs and integration.”