Interest in artificial intelligence (AI) as a potential game-changer for the telecoms industry will continue to build through 2024, and in turn drive experimentation and innovation across many areas of telcos’ businesses and those of their customers.
High expectations for AI will be tempered by uncertainty and a high degree of apprehension as businesses strive to understand and realise its benefits, while at the same time trying to mitigate the challenges that AI presents. Meanwhile, AI is attracting growing interest among governments and regulators as they too struggle to get to grips with its implications, potential economic and social benefits, and possible threats.
AI implementation will expand, but focus on key areas
Industry analysts are broadly agreed that investment in AI during the coming year needs to be in areas where the benefits can be clearly understood and managed, but differ somewhat as to the likely scope and key focus of AI adoption. Jupiter Research thinks Tier 1 operators who have already been actively implementing AI in the network core will extend integration to all areas of their networks during 2024, including the RAN, session management, security and location-based services.
As AI increasingly penetrates the edge of networks and other use cases, savings will be found in areas such as customer support and battery life of devices, says Jupiter. However, while primarily intended to reduce capital expenditure, the adoption of AI will also benefit mobile subscribers and IoT users who will see better network performance including improved data throughput and security.
Generative AI (GenAI) can provide the capability to rapidly develop intelligence-based and enhanced content-generation. Analyst firm Omdia believes that telcos will employ GenAI to transform their businesses in areas such as the management and operation of networks and customer management. They will also start to use GenAI to equip their organizations to sell transformative solutions to B2B customers and look to achieve business and productivity gains across business and job functions as well as in new areas such as sales and marketing.
AI will also bring greater benefits as its capabilities are merged with key growth areas such as IoT. “AI can provide the intelligence and decision making capabilities that are essential for making sense of the vast amounts of data that IoT devices generate”, says Omdia.
Observers at the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) agree that the focus for investment in GenAI will shift towards profitability and real use cases for the technology. The EIU says that while AI is a critical part of any digital transformation strategy, businesses will need to understand why they want to use the technology rather than using it for its own sake.
The WiFi Alliance believes that adaptive AI, which uses historical and real-time data to provide predictive analytics, optimization, and enhanced decision-making, is set to explode on networks for a range of applications from enabling automated frequency coordination (AFC) to predicting network resourcing needs. AI will help enterprises and ISPs speed up troubleshooting, streamline monitoring, and proactively anticipate outages, equipment failures, and performance degradation.
Human, ethical and security issues must be considered
The wider adoption of AI will present businesses with many conflicting demands and tough choices, according to networking equipment and data centre vendor NTT. In the coming year, embedded AI in operations centres will help to improve network quality, support engineers, and modernize infrastructures, says NTT. But networking specialists will need to understand “where automation helps and where human talent is still an essential part of the networking function.”
The expansion of AI will also raise broader concerns about how telcos manage both their internal business processes and external relationships. Among its top 10 risks facing telcos in 2024, accounting firm EY cites a number that are likely to be impacted by AI including cybersecurity and data protection, where better governance is a “vital enabler for mitigating a range of threats, particularly as new technologies such as GenAI become part of telco technology portfolios”.
Revisiting existing data governance frameworks is essential, says EY, accompanied by new approaches to decision-making on fast-evolving topics like data ethics, sustainability, partner relationships and new ways of working. EY’s research has found that CEOs at four in five telcos agree AI is a force for good, but more than seven in 10 believe they must do more to mitigate against AI “bad actors” and pay greater attention to the ethical implications of AI.
Governments and regulators will struggle to address AI concerns
Early moves by governments and regulators to manage the proliferation of AI through the introduction of limitations and safeguards surrounding its implementation will struggle to get to grips with the technology, warns Strand Consult. Measures such as the Artificial Intelligence Act, a provisional agreement reached by the Parliament and Council of the EU at the end of 2023, are premature, since AI business models have yet to be proven, says the analyst firm.
Strand Consult believes the promise of “transparency” of algorithms will challenge the skills of EU bureaucrats who will find themselves needing to assess whether Google, Microsoft, AWS, ChatGPT, or some other entity has the better AI solution.
In its predictions for 2024, analyst firm Forrester notes that several investigations and lawsuits that are ongoing in Europe and the US remain unresolved. These include actions against OpenAI and ChatGPt including for potential GDPR violations. “Companies must identify apps that could increase their risk exposure and double down on third-party risk management,” Forrester warns
Prospects for AI in emerging markets
AI deployments in emerging markets may be at an earlier stage than in the US and Europe, but the technology is already revolutionising the way businesses in many countries operate in sectors such as healthcare and agriculture. Reports suggest that, notwithstanding concerns about its possible misuse, regional bodies such as ASEAN may adopt a less rigid regulatory approach towards AI in 2024 than their western counterparts, so potentially lowering some of the barriers to more widespread AI deployment.
In a November 2023 research note, investment company Abrdn suggests that by making the technology more accessible and affordable, advances in AI are potentially allowing emerging markets to reap the benefits of years of research while also leveraging their agility to adapt and innovate. The analysis likens the leap in AI technology to the way in which mobile phones revolutionized communications, opening up many countries with previously disconnected rural areas.
The pace of AI adoption by telcos in emerging markets during 2024 will likely be governed as much by perennial factors such as cost, lack of the necessary skillsets and communications infrastructure, and the supply of hardware including chipsets, as by regulation. If judiciously and productively employed however, these are the self-same challenges that AI itself should help to overcome.