Enterprises have been undertaking digital transformation for years. However, only recently has the telecom industry started to specifically focus on digital transformation to improve customer experience and increase network automation and agility.

By Michael Howard, senior research director: carrier networks at IHS Markit

IHS Markit recently surveyed 25 leading telecom operators about the following four digital transformation technologies: operator priorities for automation; target use cases and drawbacks of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) projects; qualities and hindrances of blockchain; and open-source software versus standards.

Following are four of the key take-aways from the survey:

Automation is no small feat

Operators expect to employ many strategies to achieve at least partial automation within their networks. In fact, 60 percent of operators surveyed by IHS Markit said they support establishing a realistic migration path–that is, employ end-to-end automation of selected critical elements first then automate other elements over time.

Operators expect difficulties when automating existing networks and systems, including dealing with legacy OSS/BSS, security, and their own lack of knowledge, vision, and skills about how and what to automate.

It’s early in the game for AI and ML

AI, ML, and blockchain are nascent technologies in the telecom sector, and operators are in the early stages of learning and experimentation, with some restricted deployments. AI and ML will likely have the most impact on cloud services offered to customers and carrier network operations and management.

Nearly seven out of 10 operators (68%) began to investigate AI and ML for their businesses, while nearly six out of 10 (56%) had begun lab testing of these types of solutions; on the other hand, 24% report already have between three and five targeted uses cases in production deployment.

Operators are skeptical about whether AI and ML will be able to automate all customer interactions and network operations, with only 44 percent saying they believe this will happen at some point.

It’s even earlier in the game for blockchain

Blockchain is even less understood by the telecommunications industry than AI and ML, since most public discussion around it is about cryptocurrencies.

Many executives believe that blockchain could be used to maintain data integrity and support peer-to-peer trust in call detail records (CDR), once the technology is ready and its value has been defined. A few hopeful operators are confident that blockchain is a strong candidate to ease overall telecommunications business transactions.

Both open source software and standards are important, but little is ready for prime time

Virtually all operators agree that open source software and standards will help the industry quickly and efficiently develop new technologies that underpin the automation that digital transformation depends upon. They also believe that these standards are not yet ready for prime time.

However, they also have confidence that ESTI ISG NFV, IETF, ONAP, ONF, OpenStack Foundation, and MEF will all play important roles in the progress of automation and digital transformation.