As part of NTT Group (NYSE: NTT), NTT Data uses its relationship with sister telecom companies plus expertise in consulting, technology and integration to help clients navigate into the benefits of next-generation access networks, virtualization and automation.
The company sees similarities in operators' adoption of virtualization over the past two years and current initiatives to implement automation to improve efficiencies and cut costs, enhance customer experience and accelerate deployment of new services. NTT Data -- whose clients include Telefonica UK, BT, Colt and Vodafone -- sees some common threads among clients, regardless of location or organizational set-up, said Alastair Masson, head of telco media at NTT Data UK. A 20-plus-year veteran of the communications industry, Masson shared some of the commonalities he sees across operators and how providers can turn challenges into big opportunities in a call with UBB2020 Editor Alison Diana.
Read on for an edited version of our conversation:
UBB2020: How would you describe the state of virtualization adoption today versus two years ago?
Alastair Masson: Two years ago a number of operators were talking and experimenting with network virtualization -- and by that I mean software-defined networking (SDN) and network functions virtualization (NFV). We didn't see much broad adoption and product development based upon virtualized networks. If we look at where things are now, there are a number of operators -- [like our client] Colt -- but the list also includes Orange Business Services and AT&T who now have solutions that are products in the market exploiting virtualization capabilities. We've gone in a two-year period from some experimentation to these things being mainstream, service-catalog offerings of communication providers.
UBB2020: How do you compare that journey to the 5G voyage?
AM: If we look at the timescales for 5G, it depends on where you are in the world. In Japan, for example, NTT Docomo will have 5G in place in time for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. But we believe the market will generally start to roll out 5G a couple of years after that. The discussion around network virtualization in the context of 5G is very much about the core network, but also virtualization within the radio access network, the RAN, as well.
UBB2020: Was there a sense of urgency among providers to begin virtualization or were there developments, like standards, that really empowered this accelerated adoption?
AM: Even if you cast your mind back, five, seven, nine years, you'll have some vendors in the virtualized compute space who'll say, "Hang on, we've been doing virtualized networks for a long time." But to standards, things have now evolved to a place where there is more consistency around standards; that doesn't mean there is uniformity. But because there has been some convergence around standards, the virtualization of networks becomes more of a widespread play that can be executed.
The other thing is not everybody is doing virtualized network-based offerings. A number of organizations are doing that because they see themselves as pioneers and they recognize the early mover advantage they may be able to grasp within the market.
UBB2020: When working with clients, how involved are you in big-picture approaches?
"The operators we see, when something needs to be done they can be very nimble" - Alastair Masson
AM: We've seen, over the past two to three years, the growth in demand in not just network virtualization, but the evolution of networks generally and as a result of that we've invested quite heavily in building network practice capability and much of that is also underpinned by the heritage we have as a group. We have a strong group heritage as an operator. As part of our network practice we can bring through some of that experience -- and in some cases, that experience is three to five years ahead of where similar initiatives sit in the west.
A good example of that is looking at fiber-to-the-home, fiber-to-the-premises in Japan. That rollout completed about six to seven years ago, and that rollout rounded out to about 20 million connections delivered by NTT's fixed-line operator business across Japan. The UK is very much at the beginning of the rollout...
UBB2020: Do you see more operators moving to a one-network model?
AM: Where that is feasible from a network architecture perspective and where that underpins the delivery of service, then yes. If you can converge multiple segments -- such as business, residential, enterprise -- and you can find multiple bearers -- being the mobile side of things, the WiFi side of things and also the fixed access network side of things -- you are going to go a long way toward eliminating redundant or lazy assets on that network estate.
UBB2020: What are some of the factors operators must deal with when looking to improve customer experience?
AM: All of the operators we work with have one thing in common and it's legacy. They built their businesses and the capabilities that built their businesses up relatively quickly. It's not just as simple as buying a new network platform and then migrating across to it. When a client... recognizes change is imperative, that change is not measured in months but it's measured in years. It's not because operators aren't nimble. The operators we see, when something needs to be done they can be very nimble. There are factors that act as drag. For example, the requirement that networks and products in pretty much all segments have to work on a five-nines basis means that caution is required around switching things off and moving service onto another platform.
The other thing is that sometimes the contracts our operators have with their customers have to be allowed to run their course. Probably the biggest area that would be quite easy to trivialize, but would be unwise, is recognizing the importance of the change not only being around the technology but being around the way the operator is structured, the operating model that lives within that organization and also connects out with suppliers and customers, and also the enormity of the human change that is demanded as part of making big shifts in underlying technology capabilities.
UBB2020: There seems to be a lot of attention on automation, predictive analytics and machine learning. Do you agree?
AM: Just as I said of network virtualization, where it was two years ago, I see a lot of signs that robotic process automation and artificial intelligence (AI) is on the cusp. It's where network virtualization was two years ago. If we start to think about how operators might interact differently with their customers down the line, I've got an Amazon Echo Dot at home and when I can get the children away from it, the power from it is incredible. The immense power that sits behind that is the platform and the amazing APIs it offers. Now, one of the things I'd like to be able to do is say, "I'm going on holiday tomorrow. Can you check that my mobile has international roaming activated?" Not go onto the website and figure out how do I get to the page where I can check that, and figure out whether the radio button means it's on or off, but interact with it via the Amazon Dot or Google Home and really change the way in which we interact with our providers. I think it's a lot around artificial intelligence and about how I as a consumer interact with my providers of telephony, utilities, whatever.
UBB2020: This has been described as potentially game-changing if operators think of themselves as disruptors...
AM: The way that we interact with technology with the exponential growth we're seeing with artificial intelligence at the engagement layer and the interaction layer will change things considerably.
— Alison Diana, Editor, UBB2020. Follow us on Twitter @UBB2020 or @alisoncdiana.