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

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.”

Blockchain Set to Play Key Role in Telco Operations: Analyst

Blockchain technology is set to be used by telcos in multiple applications across all areas of operations in coming years, according to an industry analyst who has delved into the potential use of the digital ledger technology (DLT) in the space.

James Crawshaw, a senior analyst at Heavy Reading, says communications service providers (CSPs) see significant potential for the use of the much-hyped technology, which is best known for underpinning cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin.

“Today, CSPs use databases for thousands of applications. Blockchain might reach dozens of applications in the next few years. Examples include mobile number portability, SLA monitoring, or replacing CDRs for billing,” says the analyst, who describes blockchain, in essence, as a “decentralized, immutable electronic ledger; a write-once-read-many record of historical transactions, as opposed to a database that can be written over.”

Currently, CSPs are considering using blockchain in three key areas, according to Crawshaw:

  1. Fraud management: for roaming and subscription identity fraud.
  2. Identity management: storing identity transactions (network logins, purchases, etc.).
  3. IoT connectivity: a blockchain could enable secure and error-free peer-to-peer connectivity for thousands of IoT devices with cost-efficient self-managed networks.

Crawshaw examined those use cases in depth in a recent report, Blockchain Opportunities for CSPs: Separating Hype From Reality.

And while there is a certain level of marketing enthusiasm around blockchain currently, that shouldn’t get in the way of real-world tests and deployments, notes the analyst.

“Like all complex new technologies there is a degree of hype and bandwagon-jumping with blockchain. Its main purpose is as an alternative to centralized systems for recording information (primarily databases). By distributing the control, you eliminate the risk of a hack of the central controller and the information being altered fraudulently.  By using clever computer science you can replace the central controller (and the fees they normally charge) with software and get a cheaper, more reliable solution. But in most cases where we use a database today we will continue to use them in the future,” notes Crawshaw.

So which CSPs are taking the lead with the exploration of blockchain as a useful tool? Colt is one network operator that has been taking a close look at multiple ways to exploit blockchain’s potential for some time.

The operator, in collaboration with Zeetta Networks, is also set to deliver a proof-of-concept demonstration of a blockchain-based offering that enables network carriers to buy and sell network services in a secure, distributed marketplace. That PoC will be unveiled at the upcoming MEF2018 show in Los Angeles.

And Colt is one of the operators participating in a panel discussion – What Opportunities Are There For Blockchain In Telecoms & How Can These Aid Automation? – on November 8 in London as part of Light Reading’s ‘Software-Defined Operations & the Autonomous Network’ event. PCCW Global and Telefónica will also be involved in that discussion.

There are also a number of industry initiatives involving multiple CSPs: The key ones related to blockchain are:

  • The Carrier Blockchain Study Group, which counts Axiata, Etisalat, Far EasTone, KT, LG Uplus, PLDT, SoftBank, Sprint, Telin, Turkcell, Viettel and Zain among its participants
  • The Mobile Authentication Taskforce, which includes AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon
  • The International Telecoms Week Global Leaders’ Forum, in which BT, HGC Global Communications, Telefónica and Telstra are involved.

In time, blockchain might be joined in CSP back offices by other DLTs. “Blockchain is a particular type of DLT that uses cryptographically hashed blocks to record transactions in a time series or chain. If security is less of an issue you could use a simpler DLT. But then again, you might just use a regular database,” notes Crawshaw.

The seven deadly sins of digital transformation

One of the most persistent buzzwords infesting today’s telecoms industry is digital transformation, but what’s it all about at the end of the day?

This was the question Heavy Reading Analyst James Crawshaw sought to tackle in his presentation at the 2020 Vision Executive Summit event in Prague. He noted that digital transformation means different things to different companies but for all of them it’s about adapting to the internet era.

To illustrate what is driving digital transformation for CSPs Crawshaw drew on the biblical Seven Deadly Sins and gave them a telco transformation of their own

  • Gluttony is applied to the voracious demand for bandwidth that creates much of the pressure to transform
  • Pride refers to the complacency that has seen the business of connectivity become increasingly commoditized while CSPs have been slow to adapt
  • Sloth is manifested in the stagnation of revenues (increasing 1.5% per year, on average, but APRUs are steadily declining), all of which leads to:
  • Anger – specifically with regulators and anyone else CSPs can apportion blame for their plight to
  • Greed in the form of short-term profit-taking and a deficiency in long-term thinking and investment
  • Envy at the success of the big internet companies
  • Lust for big but speculative acquisitions, which end up destroying value

Crawshaw concluded with a summary of the potential benefits of digital transformation for CSPs if they get it right. Not only will it result in an improved customer experience, and thus lower churn, it will also allow the agility adapt and innovate, perhaps ultimately enabling them to become digital platform providers, with IoT identified as the most significant opportunity in this area.

There is still a lot of uncertainty around 5G

At the 2020 Vision Executive Summit in Prague we were warned that there is still a lot of work to do before we can live the 5G dream.

In his 5G state of the industry report Gabriel Brown, Analyst at Heavy Reading, reflected on the fact that operator CEOs are very much in the expectation management phase for 5G. Brown’s assessment tallied with the downbeat tone from operators at a recent Huawei 5G event, which signifies a desire by the industry try to put the hype genie back in the bottle.

Brown noted this is the fourth year in a row he has spoken about 5G at this Summit. In 2014 it was all about the kind of utopian use-cases that the industry was still banging on about at MWC this year, and a year later it was flashy new enabling technologies such as SDN. Last year things started to get real, regarding standardization, and Brown reckons this year has been the most productive yet, culminating in the freezing of the first ‘early-drop’ standard for non-standalone new radio (NSA NR) next week. It even has a new logo!

But the move from the theoretical phase to the practical one has also resulted in some harsh truths hitting home. Now that we have a clearer vision of the technologies that will comprise early 5G it has become clear that, despite the very diverse performance requirements we have for 5G, at the end of the day its will be much more about boring old efficiencies than the utopian stuff everyone has been getting so excited about.

Early illustrations of this are the initial 5G implementations such as the recent Verizon announcement that it’s thinking of doing something ill-defined in the area of fixed wireless access next year that it is branding 5G. The market seemed to be somewhat underwhelmed by this, which history may view as the first of many 5G anti-climaxes.

The serious mid-term 5G action will be all about New Radio, but Brown expressed concern about the decision to launch a non-standalone version, i.e. still using some 4G infrastructure, first. The big issue will be when standalone becomes a reality; how will we then integrate the NSA bit? There remains a lot of uncertainty around this, which is likely to cause a lot of future pain and most probably cause significant hesitation in taking the plunge with NSA.

One of Brown’s slides (above) nicely illustrated how intimidatingly complex full-fat 5G will be to implement. A member of the audience asked which components of 5G need to be put in place first and Brown said operators are unlikely to make big 5G investments until there are a significant number of devices with 5G modems in circulation. Brown noted that both Qualcomm and Intel have been talking up their 5G modems, which makes it likely we will see them in devices in a year or so.

While it’s laudable that the industry is undergoing a somewhat belated reality check on 5G it does beg a somewhat ominous question. An illustration of the telecoms industry’s current existential crisis is the absence of big kit vendors from this event, with previous multiple-sponsor Cisco’s non-appearance especially notable. If 5G is no longer the light at the end of the cyclical tunnel that many has hoped it would be then what else is there to cling to?

From Strowger’s Switch to NFV and 5G: Automating the Network periodically invites expert third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece James Crawshaw, senior analyst with industry research firm Heavy Reading, presents his thoughts on the opportunities for automation in the telecom industry.

For me, the three key themes coming from this year’s SDN NFV World congress (9-13 October, The Hague) were automation, automation and automation. The basic concept of automation – the replacement of human activities with mechanized processes – is, of course, well established.

The telecom industry has been automating itself since Almon Strowger launched the first commercially successful electromechanical telephone exchange switch in 1892. However, competitive forces both within the telecom industry, driven by regulation, and from outside, driven by OTT, means telecom operators must continue to seek out new opportunities to automate their networks and operations.

There are no easy shortcuts to building an autonomous network. Many vendors would like their customers to believe that the path to full autonomy is simply a matter of installing their latest software. Reality is more complex, and few CSPs are likely to buy into the vendor fiction.

BSS and OSS automation has been a long-running quagmire for telecom operators. Many have spent the last decades wrestling with ways to integrate multiple B/OSS systems inherited through acquisitions or new technology rollouts (e.g. 2G, 3G, 4G mobile). Unfortunately, many of the big-bang style transformation programs have gone massively over budget, taken far longer to complete than initially planned and ultimately delivered less impressive results than hoped for. Nonetheless, investments in OSS/BSS automation are worthwhile as not only can they reduce the operating costs directly related to existing OSS/BSS activities (representing around 15% of a telco’s total operating expense), they can indirectly help to reduce the operating costs associated with the network itself (around 30% of total opex).

The move to the cloud is the key enabler of next-gen network automation. In traditional networks services are tied to the infrastructure – specialized hardware appliances. In the cloud model, services can be deployed via virtualized network functions, and easily changed without having to reconfigure the underlying hardware. This requires automation within the cloud platform itself as carried out by orchestration systems.

As service providers move toward virtualized networks, the entire network must operate as a closed-loop control system where the feedback mechanism is service performance. Automating service quality management and assurance starts to be a real requirement supported by a common data analytics, policy and machine intelligence layer.

Indeed, machine learning has a role to play in automating network management. Creation of Python scripts for automating network operations is now handled by human engineers; automating the script creation process through machine learning has the potential to cut development time significantly.

Some operators are already starting to reap the benefits of new automation initiatives. AT&T reports that its ECOMP (Enhanced Control, Orchestration, Management and Policy) platform (open sourced to the ONAP project within the Linux Foundation) has shown that service deployment time can shrink from weeks to minutes using an automated platform. Efficiency gains of orders of magnitude – with corresponding cost reductions – should be more than enough to convince other CSPs that the ultimate payoff for automation will be well worth the protracted initial pain of development.

But rather than focus on virtualization and automation as solely a cost and efficiency strategy, operators need to understand that automated networks are an essential requirement to service the growing automation (software, robotics, drones, IoT, etc.) of their industrial, enterprise, healthcare and government customers.

5G presents a compelling opportunity for mobile operators to increase automation. Although always disruptive, and often expensive, a shift in mobile network generations always brings an opportunity to improve operational efficiencies. Unlike previous, technology-led mobile generations, 5G is being defined as a services-led solution. As such, 5G is likely to become an integral part of mobile operators’ automation strategies.


James CrawshawJames leads Heavy Reading’s CSP IT & Automation research service. He examines the breadth of systems and software used by communications service providers in customer, business, service and infrastructure management. James’s areas of focus include BSS (CRM, monetization, order management), OSS (orchestration, intent-based policy, closed-loop service assurance) as well as horizontal applications such as robotic process automation and artificial intelligence. He is particularly interested in the operational challenges posed by SDN and NFV and how operators can boost their agility by adopting new IT practices and systems while running existing IT infrastructure more cost-effectively.

James will be presenting at Light Reading’s “OSS in the Era of SDN and NFV” event, now in its fourth year, which will take place in London on the 1st November. The following day he will be hosting a half day workshop, also in London, on “Automation & the New Carrier Network”.