From the mag: Ciena’s Virginie Hollebecque on the present, and future, of AI and 5G

Where are we at with AI and 5G, and what do we need to keep in mind to harness their transformative power responsibly? Virginie Hollebecque has some ideas.
Tech, AI, Virginie Hollebecque, Society, Machine learning, Business, Future, Development

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Image: Virginie Hollebecque

A version of this story appears in the June 2019 print issue of CommsMEA.

AI. Machine learning. 5G. Sure, they’ve been talked about more times in the past few years than who might win the Champions League football tournament or the FIFA World Cup or what controversial things a certain American leader with a first name of Donald most recently said on Twitter, but we all know for good reason; after all, they’re set to transform society more than perhaps any technology since the Internet and smartphones themselves.

Naturally, this means there are almost as many different opinions about these technologies, too, than there are grains of sand on a beach. But few opinions come from someone with as much knowledge of these subjects as Virginie Hollebecque. Ciena’s managing director for Western Europe and the Middle East says AI, in particular, has tremendous transformative potential because it can also help reduce network capacity – freeing up those networks to be used for other things.

“Network complexity is increasing exponentially, creating intense challenges in managing the growth of end-points,” she explains.

“With Artificial Intelligence (AI), future networks will be more predictive and intelligent, programmed to automatically make recommendations, implement policies and respond to changes instantly. Furthermore, AI also enables an autonomous network to configure, monitor and maintain itself independently.

“Currently, vendors are augmenting traditional analytics with automation and AI technologies to enable the next generation of highly intelligent networks – a network capable of dynamically self-configuring or self-optimising based on changing network conditions, also designated as adaptive networks. Through AI and automation technologies, network analytics helps operators make smarter, data-driven operational and business decisions. As networks become increasingly complex and intertwined with user experiences, ever-present devices, and critical applications – each requiring a share of the network’s resources – the ability to dynamically adapt is crucial for maintaining and improving quality of service.”

Naturally, these efforts and improving quality of service relate directly to changing consumer needs.

“Nowadays, we are witnessing a growing consumer demand for high-definition content, video and applications at any time and in any location. For instance, according to IHS Markit, the online subscription video market (OTT) in the Middle East and North Africa is expected to double by 2020 and rise above 5 million. In addition, emerging technologies such as augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) are also expected to grow $6 billion by 2020 in the Middle East and African market.”

She adds: “Consequently, this is putting an increased pressure on service providers for always more business agility, still costs optimisation and tailor-made solutions, which adds tremendous network complexity as they tirelessly work to build and maintain robust networks.”

But, according to Hollebecque, a few things need to be kept in mind.

“Network complexity has led to the formation of underutilised, over-engineered networks where instead of the smooth, automated service rollout we see many manual processes,” she explains.

“To improve profitability, service providers need to keep in mind the importance of tapping into the power of AI and automation to increase operational efficiency and reduce both CapEx and OpEx by enabling networks to self-optimise, self-heal, and deliver optimal user experiences.

It will be critical for service providers to utilise new solutions that provide proactive methods for addressing potential service disruptions. One such example is Blue Planet’s Proactive Network Operations solution, that uses advanced machine learning algorithms to pinpoint potential issues before they occur and instruct the network the best course of action to take to resolve.”

A question hangs in the air: how does the landscape with AI, network complexity and consumer needs look in the Middle East? Is it the same as the rest of the world? Hollebecque doesn’t hesitate to answer.

“We’ve already seen how the Middle East region has embraced the impact of the first wave of digitisation. With the volatility on oil prices, it is safe to say that the region has developed strategies to diversify revenue and growth. The development in AI technologies could continue to strategically position the region for the years to come.”

She expands on this.

“The UAE and Saudi Arabia are two of the leading countries in AI investment. According to Gartner, UAE is one of the countries where AI will have a bigger impact with an approximate 14% of 2030 GDP. This is followed by Saudi Arabia, where AI’s contribution is forecasted to be 12.4% of GDP.

“In addition, we also see some of the leading GCC countries already furthering the deployment of 5G networks. According to the latest GSMA report for the Middle East, by 2025, 15 markets will have launched 5G mobile services across the MENA region. This means operators in the Middle East, as those in developed markets, need to quickly plan ahead to ensure their network platforms can manage the added complexity and raised expectations of 5G.”

Hollebecque adds she’s excited for what the next few years could have in store in terms of the rollout of AI and 5G – and even more excited for what could come after that. Yet humans, she explains, must play a key role in that future.

“Automation is a great enabler of AI, which allows networks to be more intelligent and scalable,” she says.

“However, solely autonomous networks are not the solution. Service providers will not surrender complete control of their networks to automation. Rather than automated networks, they will leverage adaptive networking practices, which harness the power and efficiency of data-driven AI and combine it with the invaluable experience of their engineers. Both automation and adaptive network will allow service providers to add fast provisioning and self-healing features to their infrastructure. This is a key driver paving the way for the upcoming years.”

She concludes with sage advice for any business – advice that also, coincidentally, can apply to any time period.

“While network transformation is never easy, using the right platforms with intelligent automation can help providers simplify one process at a time, and overcome one challenge at a time – paving the way to ultimate success.”

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