Despite their own high-tech nature, many of the 3G and 4G networks we use are currently managed through manually filled spreadsheets, complete with the errors and inaccuracies that come with human-led processes.
For its next generation of 5G networks, telecommunications giant Nokia is hoping to change the state of things. The Finnish company has announced that it has now digitized all of its 5G network deployments globally, and that the new processes it has implemented will be used in every Nokia network rollout globally.
From drone-led site surveys to AI-powered tools that can identify defects in the network in real time: to manage and maintain the swarm of small cells, base stations and antenna arrays that will come with future 5G networks, Nokia is betting big on digital tools.
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Nokia's president of global services Sanjay Goel said: "Today, many operators suffer from a fragmented way in how their next-gen 5G networks are designed, built and managed. The adoption of automation, AI and the digitalization of assets are vital steps in a CSP's digital transformation journey to capture the full potential of 5G."
5G holds the promise of new use cases that 3G and 4G can't support: with faster networks, industrial automation will increase, virtual reality and augmented reality might finally get a killer app, gaming will reach new heights, and edge computing will boom.
Data flows are expected to jump as 5G is deployed, from 35 exabytes recorded in 2019, to 73 exabytes in 2022. As they underpin this busy ecosystem-to-be, therefore, networks will need to be more reliable than ever. And increasingly, providers have come to realize that spreadsheets won't cut it.
Many experts have already anticipated that current inefficiencies in network management are likely to become problematic when it comes to overseeing the complexity of 5G infrastructure. In a blog post earlier this year, Goel put it bluntly: "It's clear that traditional methods have their limitations."
This observation prompted Nokia to entirely digitize the deployment, management and maintenance of the company's 5G networks. It starts from day one: site surveys are carried out by drones, to capture high-definition and detailed 3D mapping of future locations, and generate data to help engineers define the necessary materials for the build.
The goal is to build the site "first time right", instead of physically sending engineers in to inspect the site several times before starting the deployment.
Remote inspection is also prioritized throughout the site's life cycle, both through drone technology and augmented-reality tools. On-site checks can this way be carried out by one person, who is able to connect, if needed, to a remote expert fitted with an AR-enabled video collaboration tool – a much more efficient process that cuts costs and saves time.
All of the data generated is added to a digital database for the site. Visual and statistical online records feed into real-time dashboards that experts can access remotely to see project information and key performance indicators.
Most importantly, all of the workflows generated by different parties working on the build are integrated in one single platform called Nokia Delivery Platform (NDP). A cloud-based management application, NDP covers the whole life cycle of the network's deployment, from planning and designing to testing and validation, through construction, commissioning and integration.
Bringing siloed processes together into one central platform could reap huge benefits for teams working on network deployments.
The Finnish company's commitment to digitization has already shown positive results. "We have over 100 customers worldwide and are delivering 100% of our projects digitally, replacing traditional ways of network rollouts through digitization and automation," said Carlijn Adema, Nokia's head of marketing at Nokia Global Services. "To give some figures: Nokia's digital deployment services mean 4G and 5G networks are up to 30% faster to market, and installation quality is increased by 30%."
Site visits, according to Nokia, have also decreased by a third. The digital revolution promised by 5G networks is only around the corner; but it seems that network providers have a lot to gain from transforming their own procedures first.