AI plays critical role in network security, according to BT boffin

Artificial intelligence (AI) is going to play a critical role in network security in the coming years and is already helping BT defend its infrastructure.

Ben Azvine, the Global Head of Security Research & Innovation at BT, has been at the heart of cutting-edge network security developments at BT for several years and has helped develop a cybersecurity strategy that combines AI-enabled visualization of cybersecurity threats with highly-trained network security personnel. He shared some of his thoughts on the matter with attendees at this week’s Broadband World Forum event.

“We are taking AI and making it help humans to be better… We are more about the Iron Man version of AI than the Terminator version,” he said, sparking ludicrous cinematic pitch ideas in the minds of some of his audience (I mean, Alien vs Predator sort of worked, right?).

Azvine pointed out that with the number of connected devices growing rapidly, old ways of securing assets were no longer relevant: Now, companies (including network operators) need to think about having a cybersecurity strategy comprising three steps – prevention, detection/prediction and response. The response needs to be much quicker than in the past (hours, not days) while the detection/prediction is tough to do without sophisticated analytics and AI algorithms.

What BT is doing is a great example of analytics and AI in action in the communications networking sector, rather than AI as a marketing hype machine — see ‘Why BT’s Security Chief Is Attacking His Own Network’ for more details.

But security is just one of seven key telecom AI use cases, as identified in a recent report, Artificial Intelligence for Telecommunications Applications, from research house Tractica (a sister company to Telecoms.com).

That report identified the seven main use cases as:

1) Network operations monitoring and management

2) Predictive maintenance

3) Fraud mitigation

4) Cybersecurity

5) Customer service and marketing virtual digital assistants (or ‘bots’)

6) Intelligent CRM systems

7) Customer Experience Management.

“The low hanging fruit seems to be chat bots to augment call center workers,” said Heavy Reading Senior Analyst James Crawshaw, who will be one of the expert moderators digging deeper into the use of AI tools by telcos during Light Reading’s upcoming ‘Software-Defined Operations & the Autonomous Network’ event.

“The more challenging stuff is making use of machine learning in network management. That’s still a science project for most operators — Verizon’s Matt Tegerdine was pretty frank about that in his recent interview with Light Reading. (See Verizon: Vendor AI Not Ready for Prime Time).

That analysis from the Verizon executive shows it’s still early days for the application of machine learning in production communications networks. And, as Crawshaw noted, AI is not a magic wand and can’t be applied to anything and everything. “It can be applied to the same things you would apply other branches of mathematics to, such as statistics. But it’s only worth using if it brings some advantage over simpler techniques. You need to have clean data and a clear question you are seeking to answer — you can’t just invoke machine learning to magically making everything good,” adds the analyst, bringing a Harry Potter element to the proceedings.

So what should network operators be ding to take advantage of AI capabilities? BT appears to have set a good example by hiring experts, investing in R&D, applying AI tools in a very focused way (on its cybersecurity processes) and combining the resulting processes with human intelligence and know-how.   “You don’t need to recruit an army of data scientists to take advantage of machine learning,” said Crawshaw. “Nor should you remain totally reliant on third parties. Develop a core team of experts and then get business analysts to leverage their expertise into the wider organisation.”

BBWF 2018: Open data is the key to nailing smart cities

In an entertaining session at Broadband World Forum, a common theme emerged; open data, which is a key component of any successful smart city programme.

The format was an interesting one. Four smart cities were given seven minutes to explain their proposition, and then three minutes to answer questions. Featured were Milan, Athens, Helsinki and Amsterdam, though thanks to your correspondent getting lost on the show floor, the Amsterdam pitch was missed and will not get the attention it deserves. That said, the common theme throughout was open data.

Starting in Milan, data is being used to create a hub of intrigue for start-ups. There isn’t necessarily a focus on segment or vertical, more a top-line ambition to create jobs and value for the economy. As part of the initiative, more than 300 data sets have been made available for citizens and businesses to create new applications and services. Looking at the numbers, the scheme should be deemed a success.

There are currently 1600 start-ups based in the city, out of the total of roughly 8000 across the whole of Italy. 10,000 people are directly employed (or own) start-ups, 80% of which survive the first two years of operation, the most dangerous time for any business. These are certainly promising numbers.

In Helsinki the message is the same. The Mayor has an ambition to create the world’s ‘most functional city’ through digital, with tourism a key factor. Part of this story is opening data up to the community and local businesses to create value.

Finally, over in Athens, open data has been used in a different way. Thanks to financial difficulties in Greece, governments are not trusted. This makes it incredibly difficult to launch new schemes, though by opening up data to the general public and businesses, Konstantinos Champidis, the Chief Digital Officer for Athens, said the team are regaining credibility. The aim here is not only to try and help those citizens create something new, but develop a culture of transparency to regain the trust.

Trust is a key element in these smart cities strategies, as while open data does fuel innovation, the data has to be sourced in the first place. Should citizens not be open to having information about them or their activities collecting and analysed, the whole concept of the data economy runs dry.

We’re sure the presentation from the city of Amsterdam was equally as interesting as the three we saw, but the theme was plainly clear here; open data is a critical component of the smart cities mix.

BBWF 2018: A casual reminder: 5G is not the bees knees everywhere

Every now and then a reality check is appreciated. Today’s reality check regards 5G; it isn’t always a massive deal.

In the ‘developed’ markets around the world the 5G buzz is starting to reach almost unbearable levels. Unfortunately for some, with Verizon claiming a world first with its 5G FWA proposition, the shouting match is only just beginning. Domestic competitors will start clamouring for attention, while each nation will start posturing claiming their own leadership position. If you think 5G euphoria has reached a peak, just wait till it’s actually been launched somewhere.

One panel session at Broadband World Forum put some perspective on development. There are countries where 5G is about as relevant today as the Teletubbies.

“None of our incumbents have the desire to rollout 5g right now aside from entering into a pissing contest,” said Paul Hjul, Director at Crystal Web, a South African start-up ISP.

“We’re not looking to deploy 5G within the next five years,” said Martin Wessel, Head of Technology Evolution at Telecom Argentina.

5G might be a defining era for some countries who are looking to maintain a leadership position in the technology world (the US) or perhaps those attempting to retain relevance in a fast-changing global economy (the UK), but the buzz is considerably quieter in some regions.

In both Argentina and South Africa, the market is not ready for 5G. 4G is still developing and creating new angles in the national economies. Basic connectivity might be an issue, or ARPU perhaps inhibits vast expenditure, maybe the country is at the beginning of the digital transformation curve. Irrelevant to the underlying reasons, 5G is simply not a pressing priority.

This is not to say it has not been factored into conversations. Hjul highlighted 5G brings about a different mindset in South Africa with the focus on ‘fibering’ up the country as opposed to launching 5G services, while in Argentina there are long-term discussions about potential evolution. It’s more a ‘fifth generation’ mindset than a focus on 5G technology. However, the message is the same; we’re not at that stage just yet.

It is easy to get lost in the excitement of 5G, on the very same panel Leo Lundy of Irish rural ISP Imagine Communications bemoaned the political issues surrounding spectrum availability and Muhammed Sameh of Telecom Egypt suggested it was a great way to avoid ‘dumb pipe’ references, but a reality check is needed every now and then. 5G is not all its hyped up to be in some places.

BBWF 2018: Chorus sings the praises of centralised infrastructure model

Yesteryears rumbling story was the enforced separation of BT and Openreach, and while this might have been nothing more than a thinly veiled show, Ofcom might look at the success of Chorus for future inspiration.

Down in New Zealand, Chorus is an example of what can be achieved through structural separation and effective centralised investment in broadband infrastructure. The business is rolling out fibre faster than many in the world, giving rise to a landscape which benefits the consumer and is remaining profitable in the meantime. Speaking at Broadband World Forum in Berlin, Kate McKenzie, CEO of Chorus, demonstrated just what is actually possible.

Back in 2011, Telecom New Zealand was completely separated into two legal entities; Spark for mobile and Chorus for broadband. Unlike the Openreach and BT separation, these are two entirely separate (and listed) businesses, both of which are proving to be a success.

Fibre broadband penetration is at roughly 70%, with the team targeting 87%. Ubiquitous penetration would be perfect, but due to the at times harsh environment in New Zealand, it is just commercially impossible with today’s economics. New Zealand might be a small country, but the environment is incredibly varied and population density can be a nightmare. Technology is now the third largest contributor to the economy, accounting for 8% of GDP, and is steadily growing. The country now even has its own space programme, and fibre penetration has been heralded as part of this success.

“Coming up with a plan and sticking to it is key to success,” said McKenzie. Sensible regulations, consistent government policy, an understanding of consumer demand, as well as a vigilant board to keep a close eye on costs and returns, are needed to create a successful centralised infrastructure model.

The only suspect outcome is the 90+ service providers in the market. This might be great for the consumer, but it is not sustainable. Barriers are entry are almost none existent allowing anyone to get involved, but numerous of these businesses will fail due to the cut throat nature of competition. However, there certainly are some interesting models. One example is energy companies bundling energy and broadband services together.

Of course, there are dangers of centralising so much spending. Without a resilient and robust regulatory framework, the monopoly could be abused. Australian broadband providers are supposedly feeling the sting of NBN’s dominance with Telstra complaining wholesale rates are double what they should be. The political agenda also needs to be quite stable, as too much interference or changes from different government administrations could cause disaster.

Despite the negatives, New Zealand seems to have struck the right balance. Perhaps this is a country Ofcom should have a close look at. BT might have resisted (and will obviously continue to do so) pressure to remove Openreach from its business, but under the right conditions, New Zealand has shown the great benefits which can be realised for the economy and the consumer.

BBWF 2018: Telefonica Germany pitches case for FWA

Telefonica’s UK business O2 might be avoiding convergence like the plague, but for its cousins in Germany, FWA is one of the biggest drivers for the adoption of 5G.

Speaking at Broadband World Forum in Berlin, Cayetano Carbajo Martín of Telefonica Germany is not fearful of the convergence distraction. In fact, it might just save the country from a connectivity embarrassment.

“5G implementation will be driven by different needs from fixed wireless access to ever increasing eMBB demand and even co-created new industry and service solutions,” said Martín.

As you can probably imagine, dealing with the tsunami of internet traffic is a big driver for 5G within Telefonica, but FWA is a long-term money making opportunity. In terms of the rate of growth, Martín highlighted traffic increased 160% over the last 12 months on O2’s network. Looking forward, even if you take a conservative estimate of 50% year-on-year growth, by 2027 internet traffic will be 38 times greater than it is today.

Looking at today’s resources, the network will hit full capacity by 2022 and the demand for new frequencies will become a necessity. And of course, these are conservative estimates not taking into consideration the unknown usecases of tomorrow. From a bandwidth perspective, 5G is increasingly becoming a necessity, with the deadline is becoming shorter and shorter.

This will also facilitate the telcos plans to venture into the FWA market. Martín highlighted there are no ambitions to explore the possibility of 4G FWA, it simply wouldn’t be able to compete with the experience of traditional broadband, though trials in Hamburg are readying the assault on the FWA space. If you listen to Martín, the opportunity is quite significant, with the CTO predicting 20-25% of Germany will convert to FWA, and perhaps this will dig Germany out of a hole.

Like the UK, Germany is one of those markets which has not glorified itself with an ambitious fibre rollout and is now playing catch-up. The FWA buzz which is beginning to build might just disguise a couple of blushed Bavarian cheeks should 5G-driven FWA be able to cover up the fibre-less cracks across the country.

What is worth noting though is FWA will not be the saviour many are plugging it to be. Some, no names mentioned, believe it might be able to bridge the connectivity gap between urban and rural environments, but this is exaggerated. The same financial pressures will be on FWA as there will have to be suitable population density to build the business case. FWA will not mean gigabit speeds will be democratized.

Even at what is supposed to be a fixed broadband conference, 5G has managed to muscle in on the action. It’s almost embarrassing how much its hogging the limelight.

BBWF 2018: Autonomous cars are progressing, but still a lot of work to do

Predicting when self-driving cars will hit the streets is turning into a real-life version of roulette, which is always a worrying sign.

Last year, UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond set out his bold ambitions; autonomous vehicles to be on UK streets by 2021. If you listen to those testing out the solutions across the world, this is certainly achievable. But then again, there are always the neigh-sayers.

At Broadband World Forum in Berlin, Alexandros Kaloxylos, Assistant Professor at University of the Peloponnese, was one of those who poured a little bit of water on the ambitious fires of progress. From Kaloxylos’ perspective, there is still a lot of work which needs to be done on developing network slicing for autonomous vehicles, and also on the roaming side of things as well.

Looking first at the network slicing, this is an important aspect of the technology as these are applications which are safety orientated. Cars can hurt people, which is why network slicing becomes paramount. Having a ‘dedicated network’ to facilitate the communications of these vehicles is an important step towards the realisation of this dream.

This in itself is a problem, as Kaloxylos pointed out the specific V2X (vehicle-to-everything) usecase for network slicing has not been discussed or examined closely enough. This is a different type of usecase and cannot be bundled together with the rest of the exciting applications. Remote surgery is another excellent example of a usecase which needs network slicing, but the operating theatre does not move, vehicles will, and they will very quickly. The industry has addressed this challenge yet.

The second challenge which was highlighted during the session is roaming. If an autonomous vehicle moves from Germany to Switzerland for instance, or from one network to another, will the handover be efficient? As it stands, this handover can take up to seven seconds. When 20 m/s latency has been targeted for the successful implementation of autonomous vehicles, this is clearly not good enough.

Some might be excited about autonomous vehicles, but it is worth getting a reality check every now and then.