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You can't have telco transformation without automation

The 5G revolution is well under way, though with more bumps in the road and progressing more slowly than most communication service providers (CSPs) had hoped. Ask CSP leaders why, and they'll point to the lack of a "killer app" to monetize 5G investments as the biggest reason.

Next biggest: high ongoing operational costs, followed by painfully slow time-to-value for new services, with most CSPs still needing months to update their offerings. Look beneath the surface, however, and you'll find a common problem underlying all these pain points: telco technology has evolved more quickly than telco operations.

Unlike with 4G/LTE, the true promise of 5G was never just about higher data rates. It was meant to catalyze telco transformation. Arguably, the real value was to enable new capabilities like API-driven service frameworks, network slicing, ultra-low latencies, continuous integration/continuous delivery (CI/CD), and more, so that CSPs could create new differentiated services and rapidly bring them to customers. In that sense, 5G is less a solution than a next-generation toolkit for building new solutions.

So why aren't we seeing those new solutions in production? With few exceptions, CSPs have moved quickly in adopting next-gen technologies, but they haven't yet adopted the next-gen operations needed to fully capitalize on them. The result is a growing number of 5G networks that have the potential to do amazing things but still mostly don’t, because network teams are struggling to operationalize them at scale.

There's an important lesson here: CSPs can't truly innovate without simplifying operations. In a software-driven, on-demand marketplace, this requires an automated services delivery framework that exists independent of any specific services or networks—with zero-touch provisioning, orchestration, CI/CD pipelines, and critically, observability and assurance. In short, effective telco transformation requires an automation-first approach.

Barriers to Innovation
Most CSP leaders recognize the need to adopt agile and cloud-native software practices such as infrastructure as code (IaC), Git repositories, CI/CD toolchains, and others from the world of IT. Indeed, many view these modern software approaches as central to making telco services as flexible and on-demand as other cloud services. So far though, very few CSPs have actually implemented them. We can point to several reasons why:
· Short-term focus – Like all organizations, telcos have a tendency to focus on addressing immediate operational pain points. Sometimes though, short-term solutions end up delaying more substantive and necessary change. Consider network function virtualization (NFV). Most CSPs approached virtualization piecemeal, focusing first on NF deployment, then standing up infrastructure, and so on for each operational task. Very few took the opportunity to fundamentally rethink their operational approach—even though swapping dedicated appliances for dynamic software NFs absolutely warranted it.
· Need for "carrier-grade" practices – While CSP operations can certainly benefit from IT methodologies, telco infrastructures are not the same as enterprise networks. In addition to being more heavily regulated (with stiff penalties for downtime), CSP networks must comply with a broad range of standards that are alien to enterprise IT. Specifications from 3GPP, European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI), TM Forum, and others demand stringent compliance. The challenge then is not just to bring IT methodologies to telecom, but to synthesize best practices from both worlds into a unified operating environment.
· Lack of effective automation tools – Along the same lines, many of the most widely used IT automation tools are open-source. But while open-source software has its virtues, it can be a poor fit for the performance, security, and scalability requirements of CSP infrastructures. Too often, automation that’s good enough for web environments breaks down under the stringent demands of real-time communication services at scale. Given the complexity inherent in building and maintaining open-source automation, even many enterprises are beginning to pull back on this model.

Finally, CSP leaders tell us that it can sometimes be hard to get buy-in from internal teams due to fears that "operational transformation" is just a codeword for reducing headcount. Vendors share responsibility for this misconception, given our tendency to highlight cost savings as a benefit of automation. Advanced automation tooling does make individual tasks less expensive to perform, but it almost never reduces jobs. Typically, it creates new ones – just higher-level jobs.

In practice, automation simplifies more repetitive and redundant tasks, freeing network teams to spend more of their time engaged in higher-value work, such as advanced network optimization and performance tuning. In this sense, the biggest long-term economic benefit of automation is that it empowers teams to operationalize new technologies more quickly—a prerequisite for monetizing them. By automating, CSPs lay the foundation for ongoing innovation. Now, they can move more quickly, delivering software and services with more flexibility and consistency. Ultimately, they can experiment and iterate faster, exploring more ideas at a lower cost, with less risk.

Unlock true transformation
When telco operations evolve alongside telco technology—instead of trying to catch up after the fact —CSPs can do some amazing things. They can:
· Capitalize on AI – Seemingly every business is currently investing in artificial intelligence (AI), including CSPs. For telcos, the biggest value of AI is its potential to take closed-loop actions in the network—accelerating deployments, optimizing capacity, detecting and fixing performance issues, even identifying new services that haven't occurred to humans. But even the world's smartest AI models can't do those things in telco networks today, because too many network operations are still manual.
· Improve sustainability – Automation, especially paired with AI, can enable greener operations. Forward-looking CSPs are already exploring new solutions to power down network elements when not in use, reducing power consumption and carbon footprint. Future CSP networks will be able to do things like dynamically land workloads in locations with the most available energy from renewables.
· Overcome skills shortages – Even CSPs that prioritize automation have struggled to acquire network engineers with the requisite skillsets. By implementing automation using familiar IT models for CI/CD pipelines, cloud architectures, and agile software practices, telco operations now "speak the same language" as enterprise IT organizations worldwide. So there's a much larger pool of talent with the relevant skills that CSPs can hire from.
· Innovate with agility – Developing new telco services the traditional way takes months or years, often costing millions. With software-driven automation, CSPs can take ideas from conception to real-world trials in a fraction of the time. They can "fail fast," identify what's working and what isn't, and change direction much more quickly and inexpensively.

When CSPs automate, they can begin to treat their infrastructures like other modern software applications, with all the agility and flexibility that implies. They can take the aspects of their business that no other player can duplicate – vast network footprints, proven quality and reliability, unmatched RF engineering expertise – and continually assemble differentiated, high-value offerings. This is the foundation for true telco transformation.

Preparing for the next Killer App
CSPs are actively investing in enabling new business use cases to drive monetization of 5G. It's time to recognize that in the modern digital services landscape, monetization must be built on a foundation of customer centricity, innovation, and effective risk management. If you're part of a CSP organization, how should you prioritize your transformation and automation goals to maximize ROI, while managing the inherent risks of product and service innovation?

We believe there's a clear answer: building a foundation for rapid innovation that will enable CSP teams to iterate faster. This starts with breaking down operational silos and building a foundation for modern software development. A horizontal platform approach obviates the need to maintain a patchwork of legacy tools, processes, and skillsets that often hamper innovation and slow teams down. Additionally, a horizontal approach simplifies end-to-end observability and assurance, which are prerequisites for successful 5G monetization and an essential foundation for 6G.

Wherever you begin, it's worth investing in this agile services foundation even before you've identified the next killer app. Indeed, it's only by embracing transformation on its own terms—building an operational model explicitly to facilitate ongoing change—that you gain the baseline for business agility. When you have that framework in place, and the next killer app does emerge, you can quickly pivot to exploit it, even as others are still beginning their own transformations.

Is there risk in investing in agile automation? Potentially, but there's even greater risk in playing it safe. If and when new 5G/6G use cases emerge as true gamechangers, opening a path to transform from traditional telco to modern "tech-co," it's the leaders in the new software space who will be ready to help. Hang onto the old ways, and the partners invested in perpetuating them, at your peril.


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