The partnership between Google and Vodafone has borne substantial fruit in AI Booster – an artificial intelligence platform plugged into Vodafone’s network which can handle thousands of AI models a day across its 18 country footprint.
It has been in development for 18 months and, in a nutshell, the shiny new AI brain is designed to enable predictive capabilities, optimise customer experiences, improve network performance, and accelerate advances in research, in ways that wouldn’t be possible without machine learning programmes piped directly into the fabric of Vodafone’s operations. The idea is that once this framework has been set up, the operator can deploy new machine learning applications in the future as needs arise, and develop new skills, ways of working, and processes.
“To maximize business value at pace and scale, our vision was to enable fast creation and horizontal/vertical scaling of use cases in an automated, standardized manner,” said Cornelia Schaurecker, Global Group Director for Big Data & AI at Vodafone. “To do this, 18 months ago we set out to build a next-generation AI/ML platform based on new Google technology, some of which hadn’t even been announced yet.
“We knew it wouldn’t be easy. People said, ‘Shoot for the stars and you might get off the ground…’ Today, we’re really proud that AI Booster is truly taking off, and went live in almost double the markets we had originally planned. Together, we’ve used the best possible ML Ops tools and created Vodafone’s AI Booster Platform to make data scientists’ lives easier, maximise value and take co-creation and scaling of use cases globally to another level.”
The awakening of Vodafone’s new robot brain builds on the collaboration between the operator and Google with regards to cloud migration. In May Vodafone announced it had recruited Google Cloud and UK data ops firm Cardinality.IO to help it build out a pan-European cloud software project called United Performance Management, which replaced over 100 separate network performance management tools Vodafone was using across its own suite of European servers, creating what it calls ‘a single source of truth’.
We’re told the UPM platform uses AI to process and analyse up to eight billion points of data every day across 11 countries, which generates real-time insights which allows for the simplification of core operations and reduces major network and IT incidents. In the future it will apparently be able to prioritise network upgrades by analysing traffic patterns and pinpointing areas of high demand, spot network outages quicker, detect and block fraudulent behaviour, and by 2025 enable the full automation of Vodafone’s network.
Incidentally it was also announced today that Cardinality.IO has been bought out by Elisa Polystar in a move to boost its data management, AI-driven analytics and automation capabilities within its existing service assurance and automation portfolios, and to help it on its ‘journey to make self-driving networks happen.’
Vodafone says that that once it was able to start extracting value from data by moving it into this ‘single source of truth’ on Google Cloud, it was able to significantly increase efficiency, reduce data costs, and improve data quality. The next step was scaling it, apparently, by building industrial scale ML tools that can manage thousands of models a day across 18 countries, ‘while streamlining data science processes and keeping up with technological growth’ – which is where AI Booster comes in.
Ultimately what the collaboration of firms behind the project, which includes Datatronic and Intel as well as Google, has created in AI Booster is going to ‘have a considerable impact on people’s roles, learning, and ways of working’ and create a ‘culture of experimentation and learning’, Vodafone claims.
“All of this was only possible due to the incredible technology and teams at Vodafone and Google Cloud, who were flexible in listening to our requirements and even tweaking their products as a result,” added Schaurecker. “Alongside our ‘Spirit of Vodafone,’ which encourages experimenting and adapting fast, we’re able to optimize value for our customers and business. A huge thank you also to Datatonic, who were a critical partner throughout this journey and to Intel for their valuable funding contribution.”
The argument is sometimes made that big tech firms, usually the hyperscaler arms of Google, Amazon and Microsoft, are gaining more of a foothold in the telco space due to deals such as this one, or digital transformation projects in which operator’s core functions are transferred over to public clouds. The point being that perhaps giving up elements of direct control over key aspects of the business could end up being a problem for telcos down the road.
It’s a fair point, certainly in terms of network outages or some such technical problem that is out of your ability to prevent or fix if your business soul lives on AWS or Azure. But of course, you’re not immune to those sorts of problems if you run the servers yourself – and while we’re talking about handing over control of key functions to other companies, the case could certainly be made that the practice of selling off towers to firms like Cellnex and renting them back is more of a potential pain in the arse waiting to happen for operators.
However these sorts of projects are about taking something operators already do, and doing it cheaper or better at the cost of getting into bed with another firm. Projects like AI Booster are really about creating something new – something a company like Vodafone didn’t really have a hope of rolling out on its own steam.
The exact dynamics with which the telco and big tech worlds collide is yet to be seen. Right now all the noise coming from trade shows, at which these firms share stages, or in the many partnerships we’ve seen over the years, is about collaboration – primarily through the digital transformation of telco organisations through cloud platforms, but also more spicy things like this AI project.
Who knows how that relationship will evolve in 10 or 20 years, but it’s certainly not a given that the story will be one of encroaching big tech influence into national operator’s core business interests to the point that rivalry and tensions heat up significantly. There are areas in which they could potentially become more competitive, but the really nasty tech corporate rivalries (Apple and Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo, Intel and AMD) occur where really the entire business models of the opposing teams are geared up to try and scoop up the same customers with very similar products.
What a company like Vodafone is trying to do to hit its quarterly targets and what a company like Google is trying to do in order to do the same are chalk and cheese. Will the lines get blurrier later down the line? It’s certainly possible, but for collaborations like we are seeing now to become awkward, they would presumably have to start having products that overlap in much more meaningful ways.
With the technology as it stands, that would mean either companies like Three and Vodafone start muscling in on the oligopoly of Amazon, Microsoft and Google in the cloud computing space, or the big tech firms have a look at the increasingly tight margins involved in building 5G masts and laying underground fibre, and decide they fancy a bit of that hassle. We’ll leave you to assess how likely either scenario is for yourself.
To repeat the caveat, no one can predict the future and in the breakneck speed of change in the tech world you can’t rule anything out for sure. Perhaps one day firms like Vodafone and Google will be at loggerheads, but for now collaborations between them such as this one look like an example of the telcos and big tech complimenting each other very well to create something that wouldn’t be possible without it.