Spotlight on Tech

2024 Predictions: Telecom Flips Open RAN narrative, focuses on efficiency, customer care

Geoff Hollingworth
Chief Marketing Officer
Rakuten Symphony
January 9, 2024
minute read

It’s 2024 and telecom is still in the process of transitioning to the open, cloud-based network approach that Rakuten Mobile started in Japan in 2018. What progress will the new year bring to this effort? Here are my three predictions:

Prediction 1: Open RAN everywhere, peak “Open RAN-washing”

One of the amazing things that's happened in 2023 is a complete flipping of the existing vendor community from saying "Open RAN will never work, it's not secure and it's more expensive," to now competing to claim Open RAN leadership.

This will continue in 2024 and reach peak “Open RAN-washing” where all the major vendors will state “we are Open RAN leaders,” while claiming market and technology leadership by their own definition. These companies are already throwing accusations in each other’s direction.

The danger of this to telecom is that we as an industry “adopt Open RAN” but nothing changes. As said many months ago, “Open RAN is not the answer, but it is essential help.” The goal of the industry needs to be to change entirely how we plan, deploy and operate networks.

Most people in telecom believe that it’s better to build networks that are open, which allows more alternatives, more choice, and more new vendors that can provide innovative solutions depending on different needs.

Open RAN-washing is similar to when everyone in IT decided that cloud was the answer. Then suddenly all the vendors had cloud solutions. And of course, they were the same solutions as they had before. They just stuck cloud in front of their name for marketing purposes. And again, adopting cloud was never the answer, improving how applications are deployed in a very flexible and programmable way is really what the IT world was trying to do.

Get ready, because we haven't heard the last of large vendors flipping the narrative on Open RAN from “it will never work” to “I am the leader.”

Prediction 2: Radical focus on efficiency

Accelerating efficiency will be a radical focus for MNOs. This is important because no telecom business metric looks particularly good today. Costs for 5G networks versus 4G networks have gone up 10%. Revenue, depending on which report you read, is either predicted to increase by only 1% or to go down 5% over the next five years.

From a competition perspective, none of the promises of 5G technology as the industry savior are being realized because 5G is a technology, not a business. And too many MNOs have not really changed how they do business.

None of this is good from a financial investment perspective. Every MNO recognizes the one thing they can control is efficiency, including business and network OPEX.

Rules-based automation + AI

The efficiency push will start with rules-based automation of processes because it can generate a big cost saving.

Rules-based automation is essentially software taking the place of the hands and feet of people; it carries out repetitive tasks as if a person was typing those commands on the keyboard. But it's actually just the software program.

When AI is added to the solution, it will generate even more impact. Where rules-based automation replaces hands and feet, and AI automation replaces the brains of the processes and can respond to issues in a preemptive way. This is in contrast to rules-based automation that can only deal with issues after they've happened.

AI automation will change the definition of a highly performing network to one where problems no longer occur because they are actually addressed before they happen.

One area where this will all tie in is energy management, where sustainability meets the business world in a positive way. The amount of potential cost and energy savings is huge as equipment can be automatically put into sleep mode or turned off because workloads can be dynamically moved. In my mind, there'll never be a more power-hungry network than there is today because no intelligence has been applied to whether that node or network function needs to be kept on or not.

Energy management is just a subsection of radical efficiency. And the reason that will happen is because of basic business desires to save energy costs, which is a good thing.

Prediction 3: Gen AI levels up customer care

Telecom is awful at caring for customers, but in 2024 there is a chance it can be much better. Using generative AI, I believe that telecom can proactively care for its customers, which is different from what is considered customer care today.

Today’s customer care is evolving. There are MNOs doing the easy things to automate customer care. They are replacing people answering the phone with machines that can better handle customer calls in a human, realistic and non-frustrating way. These machines also have all the knowledge required to help the customer. So, it's almost like the Turing test of customer care. This transformation is a given and will help MNOs handle customer queries more efficiently compared to traditional customer care.

There hasn't been a culture of caring about customers in telecom. Customers are viewed as “minute-consuming, device-carrying units.” And customer care is defined as helping them when there’s a problem.

The interesting opportunity for telecom is to use gen AI to implement proactive individual service recommendations and relationship building with customers.

I would be a great candidate for this. Based on my services and monthly bill, I'm a valuable customer. At no point has my operator ever proactively contacted me to suggest I do something different or show a special acknowledgement of my status. Even just a “we'd like to say thank you.”

I was with a carrier that spent billions of dollars to broadcast how great its service is. But when I swapped to a different carrier they just didn’t care. And I am worth about five customers to them based on how large my bill is each month. If MNOs don't care for their customers, somebody else will. I’m a good example of that.

Getting ready for 2024

In 2024, MNOs will need to focus ambitions on building open networks and not falling into the trap of chasing the latest Open RAN buzz words.

We must drive radical efficiency of the business, which will allow MNOs to be more competitive, because it'll allow us to speed up network building and operations, spend less money and be more agile.

And finally, we need to actually care about customers and technology might be able to do that, whereas we haven't managed to scale that effectively with people.

I think the first two predictions will happen and the last one is my “moon shot.” And if it does happen, it would actually make a massive difference and change how MNOs are perceived.

For more information on how we see the telco landscape evolving, be sure to follow our "Zero-Touch Telecom" newsletter on LinkedIn.

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