Automation is the way to go, but what about the workers?
Automation is fast coming to a range of industries, bringing greater efficiencies, lower operating costs and more flexible service delivery. But will the telecoms industry be in the front line when the negative effects of automation kick in, asks Peter Dykes?
A couple of recent reports suggest that telcos are going for network automation in a big way, in order to compete with cloud service providers like Amazon and Google, which operate on much shorter cycles and serve more clients with fewer people.
Data and analytics company GlobalData’s technology analyst Ron Westfall says that while the idea of self-driving, automated networks is not new to the likes of Google and Amazon, network automation is coming of age and moving into telecoms which operates in much more complex environments than cloud service providers.
US progressing at speed
Indeed, a study carried out by ACG Research and Ciena, found that investment in network automation is set to grow by approximately 30% between now and 2021. The report also found that 75% of international network providers expect to see significant or full network automation within five years. In the US, AT&T, Bell Canada, CenturyLink and Verizon are moving forward at speed with their SDN and NFV plans, with network automation playing a prominent role in accelerating service creation and delivery over a software-centric network architecture.
What this all means is that processes at almost every level of a CSP’s operation will be automated in some way and to some extent, including pretty much all aspects of OSS and BSS, HR and field operations. Sounds good huh? But there is a downside.
CenturyLink, the third biggest fixed-line operator in the US, which at the end of 2017 had 51,000 employees on its books, is reportedly planning to shed more than 1,000 jobs partly following its US$34 billion (€29.09 billion) takeover of Level 3 but also as a result of automating tasks previously carried out by employees. It is thought the company’s headcount would fall by around 2% as a result of the cuts.
In the UK, BT is shedding 13,000 jobs to save £1.5 billion (€1.71 billion) over the next three years. The former incumbent says that the cuts will come mainly in middle management and back office staff. While it’s probably a good guess that the middle management losses are a result of recent restructuring in the company, ‘back office’ sounds more like a result of BSS automation.
Ironically, BT’s spin-off external plant business Openreach is looking to recruit 3,500 more engineers this year in addition to the 1,500 it took on in 2017. The majority of these jobs however are likely to be relatively short-term, disappearing once the push to roll out fibre has passed its peak.
New skills required
There is absolutely no doubt that the move to SDN and NFV and the increasing levels of automation in all aspects of the network will create redundancies on a significant scale. It brings to mind the transition from Strowger technology to fully electronic telephone exchanges. In a very short period of time, skills that had been learned and honed in many cases for decades, were no longer relevant and new skill sets were required.
Westfall concludes, “The ambitions of large telcos that need to deploy new technologies quickly – and keep up the pace of change to stay relevant – leave only one logical way out: remove the complexity out of sight, and make networks work faster and more efficiently with less human intrusion.”
There you have it, ‘less human intrusion’. Businesswise, automation is a very positive development, but when embracing its benefits, spare a thought or two for those getting left behind.
The author is freelance telecoms writer, Peter Dykes