The telecommunications industry has been a pioneer in adopting technology from its very inception, primarily because it has evolved because of the successful amalgamation of hardware and software technology on offer. However, as the industry matured, and communication became an essential commodity, telecommunications became highly competitive as well as regulated over time.

This increased regulation and competition eventually brought profit margins under tremendous pressure, thereby reducing the cash pool available with the Communication Service Providers (CSPs) to invest in strategic endeavours like research & development and service innovation. In the last 10 years, technology advances in the industry have been fuelled by the advances in smartphones and increased demand around data and voice consumption resulting in offerings like Voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP) and Voice over Long-Term Evolution (VoLTE).

However, the next wave of innovation in the telecommunications sector is set to be driven by technologies based on Artificial Intelligence (AI) as more and more CSPs turn towards harnessing technology to find answers to their core business drivers.

These can essentially be bucketed into three categories:

* Enhancing customer experience — Essential for customer retention and opening net new revenue generation opportunities with them;

* Network operations optimisation — To reduce operational expenses and increase service reliability via network automation and capacity improvements.

* New revenue streams — Data monetisation, cross-selling, up-selling, new customer acquisition and legacy retention.

Over the last five to seven years, there has been rapid recognition in the industry about the potential of AI in achieving solutions focused on the core business drivers. More and more CSPs now have such outcomes as part of their medium and long-term blueprints. This would see the advent of autonomous networks, while there are already some advances, like chatbots, that are reshaping customer experiences.

Let us have a slightly closer look at both autonomous networks and chatbots solutions.

One of the key future states CSPs are looking at now is an AI-based network management or autonomous networks. These will run with zero human intervention and will not operate in the reactive fashion as it happens today, but will be more proactive by design.

An autonomous network would be able to identify possible failures before they actually happen and take corrective measures. For example, if a node is seeing an unusually high load due to increase in customer usage, the system will not wait for the node to fail, calls to drop, and then fix the issue, but will take corrective action as soon as the certainty of the failure reaches a pre-defined limit — say, a 75 per cent chance of failure.

Chatbot technology has been around for a while and has been at the forefront of enhancing customer experience. We all have interacted with one of these while browsing sites that offer assistance through a chat window stuck in the corner of the website. Early chatbot technology had text-based responses, meaning that the chatbot can only answer something that it was programmed to identify and had an answer available for.

However, AI is changing that experience completely with chatbots now trying to figure out what the customer is looking for, learning from previous failed responses and digging deeper into the data layers to find a solution to the customer’s queries. These AI-based chatbots are improving with every interaction they have with customers, without the need for any new programming.

With time, these chatbots are not just able to fulfil our immediate needs but are also able to up-sell and cross-sell products without any human intervention. We are now seeing this chatbot technology moving to physical forms with robots using the same technology for a more real-world interaction with humans.

The evolution of the telecommunications industry is inevitable and will be exciting to watch. The roadblocks to this evolution are more human than technology-oriented. To evolve would mean to take risks, experiment, empower its leaders, collaborate with each other.

Umar Khani is a consultant on AI and cloud computing.