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It is no surprise that the industry was dealt an immense blow as soon as COVID-19 hit. Operators and vendors alike, across the world, have had to deal with (or are currently dealing with) an immense burden due to widespread lockdowns and the rise in remote working and learning. This has caused a great deal of pressure on networks everywhere. However, companies have been quick to realize that this may just be the right time to leverage emerging technologies to ensure business continuity and minimize the disruption of business operations.

Nokia is one of the world’s most prominent telecom brands and a leader in creating and providing cutting-edge, next-generation infrastructure solutions. Aji Ed, chief technology officer, Middle East & Africa, Nokia spoke to Telecom Review about Nokia’s own experience during the pandemic.

Throughout the interview, he shed light on how Nokia tackled the pandemic-induced challenges, the role of artificial intelligence as well as 5G in navigating the crisis, and technology trends.

COVID-19 has impacted every single industry in one way or the other. To what extent has the pandemic affected telecom networks across the MEA region? And how did Nokia deal with the pandemic-induced challenges?

The world has fundamentally transformed over the past few months. ​With the global pandemic of COVID-19, all of us were faced with a new reality of remote working, remote learning and remote collaboration. ​​

At the beginning of the pandemic, Nokia saw approximately 30% traffic growth in MEA networks – the same kind of growth that we would usually expect in a year with heavy use of multiple video-centric collaboration tools. We have now passed the initial surge in the network use. We are seeing demand peaks stabilize as citizens across the world adjust to a new normal, completely relying on connectivity.

At Nokia, we have worked closely with operators to reduce congestion through network optimization, Nokia EdenNet SON, Nokia Deepfield IP network insights and other software capacity enhancements. Together, we are now looking to the next phase.

Nokia sees two key priorities – scaling and stimulation -- for operators as we adjust to the changes.

In terms of scale, it is safe to say that Covid-19 lockdown restrictions will continue to place extreme demands on new areas of the network, particularly indoor and residential locations. Nokia being a true-end-to end global player, can help operators build additional capacity to their networks.

Some of these strategies include: adding network layers for capacity using new spectrum bands, adding more sectors and more sites to cover the data demand of a specific area, connecting rural and under-served areas by combining Nokia AirScale and microwave Wavence solutions to build efficient coverage, building FWA (fixed wireless access) solutions over LTE or 5G using Nokia Fast Mile solutions and last but not least, introducing high degree of programmability with SDN (Software Defined Networking) for the back haul using Nuage SDN solutions from Nokia.

In terms of stimulation, as of yet, the main priority throughout this crisis has been to respond quickly and decisively to urgent challenges. However, the steps the industry takes today will help pave the way towards our 5G future, post-pandemic. Service providers can play a key role by offering new services to streamline the recovery of their customers’ business and providing their contribution to the growth of the economy.

Many are of the belief that the pandemic will have a lasting effect on a variety of industries. How do you see the acceleration of digital transformation post-pandemic?

We believe that telecommunications technologies will play a key role in accelerating the global digital transformation post pandemic and in advancing 5G deployments, providing a catalyst for the world's fourth industrial revolution and enabling advanced e-health, e-commerce, e-learning, cloud robotics and many more. If we invest now, we can further strengthen our infrastructure, economies and societies to cope in the best way possible with whatever challenges future decades may bring. 5G will further enable the acceleration of AI (Artificial Intelligence) and ML (Machine Learning) use cases, which will be a pillar for future digital transformation.

You just mentioned about AI and machine learning. How do you see their role in 5G?

The terminologies like AI, machine learning and deep learning are used together widely, however, these are a bit different.  While AI refers to a broader idea where machines can execute tasks "smartly", machine learning is based on the idea that machines should be able to learn and adapt through experience or prior data.

Deep learning is a subset of machine learning where more complex problems are solved using methods like Artificial Neural Networks -- similar to human brain information processing.

Today, the networks are being built with automated intelligence, which is predominantly human defined, directed and driven. This just helps to automate the repetitive human tasks that are usually tried and tested methods of the past, but without any new learning. Moving forward, the mechanism will be to add intelligence through trained models using past experience and machines taking decisions dynamically.

Nokia believes that both 5G and AI are going to be evolved in parallel. In the first phase of 5G for the next 3-5 years, we at Nokia expect to see an uptake of more machine learning and deep learning algorithms in the 5G networks. This is primarily driven by network capacity requirements. For example, Nokia is preparing RAN Intelligent Controller platform and Machine Learning based SON (Self Organized Networks) solutions to enable AI and ML use cases towards 5G networks.

AI/ML can be applied across multiple layers. It could be applied on a network level through the use of machine learning algorithms for multi-layer capacity optimization, dynamic load balancing and equalization. Additionally, it could be applied on a region level (through Edge cloud) or at site level by using features like machine learning based scheduler optimizations or beam pattern optimization.

In the second phase of 5G, Nokia expects more and more AI capabilities built into the far edge cloud and near devices using distributed intelligence. This will further help to bring revolutionary use cases for 5G.

In summary, 5G and AI will create the platform for many future applications.

While 5G momentum continues to grow, what about the expansion of other technologies like 4G across the MEA?

Yes the 5G momentum continues to grow, and for Nokia, its strong momentum is marked with 74 commercial 5G deals and 29 live networks with all key operators across the globe including in the Middle East and Africa, as of end of June.

While the 5G momentum grows, there is still a strong demand for other technologies, as the Middle East and African region is home to one of the most diversified telecoms markets in the world.

We at Nokia see the great early adoption of 5G in the Middle East countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, etc., and this momentum is expected to grow further in 2020 and beyond. Similarly, in Africa, South Africa has been on the forefront of 5G adoption, while some countries in North Africa are already preparing for the adoption of 5G.  However, there are many countries in Africa where 2G, 3G and/or LTE are the key technologies due to spectrum constraints, device ecosystem and other economic constraints. Many of these network operators are investing now in LTE and LTE advanced technologies to improve the user experience with higher order MIMO (4x4MIMO), carrier aggregation, etc.

In addition to this, there is always an underlying clear demand for end-to-end aspects of the network including fixed wireless access solutions, fiber infrastructure, backhaul upgrades in IP and optical networks, cloud native core applications, end-to-end security management and customer experience management (CEM) solutions for operators to achieve superior network performance and customer experience. Nokia can help the operators with its full suite of end-to-end product portfolio to address this demand.

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