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By Zhang Wanchun, senior vice-president of ZTE Corporation

The emergence of 5G – one of key technologies in the fourth industrial revolution – has spawned networks with digital, cloud-based and micro-service features. These networks foster a wide array of new services and spearhead digital transformation that fulfils diverse customer requirements for vertical industries in the new era.

However, operators are facing great challenges in their efforts to transform. To overcome them, ZTE encourages operators to apply the principles of “Three Leads” when they embark on their digital transformation journey.

1.         The Business and Experience Lead enables experience-driven, close-loop operations whilst operators explore optimal strategies for dynamic and optimal network utilisation and business development.

2.         The Open Lead drives collaborative transformation of business, network and data. The aim is to create synergy between the design state and the operations state.

3.         The Value Lead allows operators to focus on high value scenarios which satisfy market demands and their customers’ needs.

If the network were to be regarded as a human being, self-autonomy would lead to energized body parts with more agility and flexibility. However, without the central coordination using closed-loop insight based on experiencing the surrounding environment, the full benefits of automation cannot be unleashed to realize the goal of an autonomous network.

At ZTE, we believe that network intelligence utilizing big data and artificial intelligence (AI) as the “brain” for the network is the way forward for operators to meet the challenges of digital transformation and realize the ultimate goal of an autonomous network.

Today, autonomous networks are used in the whole process of network operations and maintenance (O&M), bringing essential business value and benefits to operators.  

Overall, autonomous networks enable operators to enhance network agility in support of business dynamics in the following key areas:

1.         Operations strategy improvement: This supports operations strategy decision making with "experience insight", "business insight" and "value insight" to increase competitiveness in the market.

2.         Collaborative product innovation: This provides a unified business-enabling platform yielding high agility and reliability. The platform lays the foundation for operators to work closely with ecological partners so as to differentiate their products and services from competing ones.

3.         Efficiency improvement, cost reduction and sustainable development: The enabling platform makes it possible to manage 2C (to consumer), 2B (to business) and 2H (to home) operations and maintenance efficiently for sustained development across vertical industries.

After years of industry development and exploration, leading global operators have set the vision and goal of realizing autonomous networks in four key aspects, namely single domain autonomy, cross-domain collaboration, capability openness, and joint construction of the ecological environment.

ZTE actively participates in the systematic construction of autonomous networks and carries out comprehensive pilot projects and commercial trials of autonomous networks with global operators. Aligning with operators’ aspirations, ZTE has launched the uSmartNet cross-domain autonomous networks solution, which has a layered architecture and ubiquitous AI capability.

The envisioned architecture for autonomous networks encompasses native intelligence at the network elements (NE) layer, single-domain autonomy at the network layer, and cross-domain collaboration at the service layer.

In terms of the NE and network layers, ZTE focuses on the native intelligence of NE embedded with AI capabilities within the closed loop of single-domain resources. This achieves the objective of a network being "perceivable, operable, highly reliable and self-optimising". It also establishes intelligent foundation blocks for the unified management of cross-generation, cross-domain and cross-vendor operations on a single-domain operations maintenance centre (OMC) professional workbench.

In the cross-domain service layer, the uSmartNet solution contains the VMAX digital intelligent platform that utilizes big data and AI technologies.

The solution focuses on cross-domain operations and provides end-to-end (E2E) analysis of voice and data services. It delivers a "unified view with global awareness as well as automation of intelligent closed-loop operations”.

uSmartNet also provides open data and AI via OpenAPI to support partners’ eco-systems. Such openness frees operators to develop an ecological network with a high degree of autonomy.

At present, the uSmartNet autonomous networks solution has been deployed in a few operators’ networks with applications in a number of areas.

Some of the deployments focus on customer experience management and service quality management. Some of the deployments focus on network resource management such as network alarm management, network performance optimisation through automated analysis, intelligent root cause mining as well as close loop automation. Still others focus on network optimization automation.

One of the noteworthy use cases relates to the energy-saving feature of the uSmartNet solution for 5G. The capability makes it possible to dynamically switch on and off power based on localized and dynamic traffic demand while maintaining a high quality of customer experience.

Embedding ZTE uSmartNet into network operations also helps to raise the intelligence and automation level across domains. We believe that in our industry collaboration efforts over the coming years, we can work with global operators to achieve the ultimate goal of autonomous networking via a phased approach.

The ever-growing intelligence capabilities of uSmartNet will also enable collaboration across vertical industries. This will enable operators to explore untapped business opportunities and expand into new vertical and digital markets.

Bearing the vision of the ultimate autonomous digital network, ZTE believes that a network embedded with native intelligence lays the core foundation while the service-driven, cross-domain intelligent “brain” holds the key for the future. 

The networks of tomorrow will feature intelligent planes to support intent-based networking and enable operations utilizing the latest technologies such as digital twins, federated learning and intelligent computing convergence. This will in turn lead to game-changing applications that make the universal benefits of intelligent autonomous networks a practical reality across industries.

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