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Top 5G standalone service assurance challenges and how to overcome them

The need for adaptive service assurance for 5G standalone is driven by user experience, hybrid technologies and the cost of big data, among other factors.

Mobile network operators (MNOs) are navigating increasingly complex environments. This complexity is due to the hybrid nature of 5G rollouts (still involving 4G) and the stringent user experience requirements necessary for 5G enterprise and industry customers.

In this blog post we’ll take a deeper look at the top 5G challenges MNOs will encounter on the road to 5G standalone and the best strategies for navigating them.

1. 5G standalone must deliver exceptional user experience

MNOs are challenged to simultaneously keep pace with demand, improve quality of experience (QoE) and speed up time to market. In the midst of this, a perfect storm of adverse conditions threatens their profitability: shrinking revenue, margins and operations budgets; increased competition; high customer acquisition and retention costs.

The best defense is a good offense: consistently delivering exceptional service quality.

To do that, MNOs are adopting AI in their operations organizations—a technology that brings with it distinct user experience and automation benefits. When surveyed about this, 40% of MNO executives said user experience is the main driver for adopting AI, and 42% said the biggest benefit of doing so is automated detection and prediction of customer-impacting events1.

That may seem a tall order given the current (and future) state of visibility into network and service performance.

2. 5G standalone intensifies the performance visibility gap

The existing service assurance tools MNOs use already struggle to keep up in a world of many factors that contribute to operational complexity—including virtualization, IoT, and multi-access edge computing (MEC). Encryption, huge increases to traffic volume, virtualization, siloed systems and probe scalability all conspire to erode performance visibility. By 2024, 80% of traffic will be invisible to traditional service assurance systems2.

The inevitable result is that customers silently suffer, mostly from a mounting experience of many small service interruptions. Degradations define custom experience much more than outages; 90% of these go unnoticed3. This erodes brand reputation, leads to churn, and puts revenue at risk. 5G standalone is the breaking point; things can't continue this way if MNOs hope to run profitable businesses and capitalize on the new revenue 5G enables.

Big data can’t solve this problem. What can: automated orchestration using adaptive service assurance and ‘small data’ to efficiently detect, predict, diagnose and resolve customer-impacting events.

But AI-driven automation only works if it's part of a larger effort to assure and orchestrate networks in an integrated manner. That's challenging in the context of hybrid environments.

3. Hybrid 5G standalone networks demand automated, integrated orchestration

Dynamic, virtualized environments are difficult to fully control. The ability to know what's happening and fix problems quickly is crucial but elusive. Automation is widely viewed as the solution, with 94% of MNO executives saying automated fault/degradation detection and diagnostics is either essential or important for 5G services4.

But traditional assurance solutions do not provide the immediate visibility into network and service performance required for effective automation. (Most of these systems don't even support the APIs needed to build an integrated automation solution!)

Meanwhile, 70% of MNO executives say they plan to orchestrate and assure 4G and 5G networks and services using a common framework, even though 47% of them also say that deploying an integrated framework is their biggest obstacle to real-time, 5G network automation and orchestration5.

To unlock these challenges, MNOs need two keys: small data and adaptive service assurance.

4. When it comes to data, small is the new big

Over half of operators (56%) are held back from automation by inconsistent data that can't be shared between siloed service assurance systems6. And 97% of service assurance solutions do not support cross-platform automation7.

Big data, traditionally seen as the driver of automation, is not helping to solve these problems. That's because big data is expensive to collect, store and analyze—and more often than not doesn't even end up providing the insights needed. Big data will continue to play a role in service assurance, but MNOs that rely on it solely for 5G automation will drown.

Adaptive service assurance overcomes big data limitations by using machine learning to dynamically collect and process data and make decisions in real-time.

5. Adaptive service assurance is the foundation of 5G standalone

Because machines using networks will soon outnumber people, and 5G services require Gbit/s to the handset, MNOs must be able to provision services at scale and instantly adapt network capacity.

The only way to do that is by using a customer-centric, scalable, open and adaptive service assurance framework. This framework should be tailored to rapidly deliver insights that relate service quality and customer experience to network and infrastructure performance.

Adaptive service assurance provides the right data at the right time in context to detect, diagnose and resolve—or predict and prevent—customer-impacting events that occur in communications networks and services.

As an enabler of closed-loop orchestration, it does this through a powerful yet efficient continuous process of monitoring, assessing and diagnosing issues, prescribing action and validating results. This process focuses testing/monitoring where and when it’s needed, scaling up and down dynamically to reduce cost and resources.

Conclusion: 5G is a journey that’s already underway

Automation for 5G service assurance and delivery is a journey. Each step adds incremental value. Yes, the eventual goal is closed-loop automation for autonomous networks. But this won't happen overnight. The evolution from simple process automation to multi-system integration to AI-based root cause/decisional automation are natural and expected mile markers along the way.

Navigating this journey in the most cost-effective way will look different for each operator. But common to all of them is the truth that delivering a new level of customer experience and generating new revenue requires intelligent automation that learns and adapts to current conditions.

This isn’t a pipe dream: the technology already exists and MNOs are embracing it to address the challenges they face right now and the challenges they expect to face in future. Adaptive service assurance is the catalyst to evolve from simple process automation to fully orchestrated, closed-loop networks. This journey may prove to be shorter than expected!

1, 4, 5. TM Forum, March 2021, “Virtual Digital Leadership Summit: How will AI and analytics drive 5G revenue.” See replay here
2. EXFO sales engagements with Verizon and AT&T, 2020
3. Heavy Reading survey, 2019; EXFO customer data and advisory board insight, 2019.
6. Nokia, “Telcos and AI: what will it take to create an AI driven telecoms industry,” May 2019.
7. Analysys Mason, 2019.