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AI in networking presents opportunities for service providers

Network installers and managed service providers can reap key benefits with AI in networking, including better productivity, staff management and customer response.

I've had many conversations recently with network installers, consultants and service providers about artificial intelligence and machine learning as applied to Wi-Fi management and analytics. Many professionals are somewhere between skeptical -- that's good -- and outright hostile -- that's bad -- with an unfortunate bias toward the latter.

AI and machine learning, as applied to Wi-Fi, are in their early days. But my work in this area has led me to conclude that they're both destined for ubiquity in wireless LANs everywhere. This level of adoption, however, is only possible if service providers get on board as they design, build and operate organizational networks.

The real issue here, I think, is fear -- fear of being replaced, fear of lost revenue and fear of seeing their businesses fail. While these outcomes are possible, they're also very unlikely. The development of AI and machine learning are, in fact, the best thing to happen to LAN service providers, after the invention of the LAN itself, of course.

Taking advantage of AI in networking

Network installers have always been repositories of knowledge, expertise and responsiveness in the event of problems. They are increasingly taking on a larger role in post-installation managed services and expect those managed services to become a larger element of their businesses.

This activity, though, is labor-intensive, and the workforce needs specialized expertise. Ongoing education, training and the expected learning curve are core considerations. The productivity of even the very best staff is always limited.

So, what can AI and machine learning do for service providers? Consider the following.

  • Enhanced productivity. This means doing more with the same resources. With AI and machine learning monitoring user sites all the time and constantly refining their knowledge, productivity improvements are easy.
  • Enhanced scope of operations. More productivity means expert staff can serve more customers. Thus, growing the business no longer depends on hiring more experts, who will likely remain scarce.
  • Improved responsiveness. AI and machine learning can recognize problems before they are apparent and harm organizational results. Want to be a hero to your customers? Fix a problem before it really becomes one. Good luck doing that without AI-based tools.
  • Reduce costs. AI and machine learning are forms of automation, and cost reduction is usually a key motivator for automation in any form. While some might argue automation is not in the best interest of workers, it's certainly in the best interest of customers. And, if a business is not prioritizing customer service, then why does that business exist?

The future of service providers' businesses

Despite the promise of AI in networking, human experts will always be required. Network installers remain essential in the networking supply chain, as robots that can perform physical tasks are a long way off. And, let's face it: Most users will find AI and machine learning daunting. They will be inclined to buy managed services rather than bear new Capex and operational burdens.

Service providers ought to align their business models with new and profitable opportunities in AI and machine learning and not see these emerging technologies as threats. With an increasing number of organizations depending on service providers for network operations, customers won't have access to the latest and most effective tools if their providers have an unfavorable view toward them.

Of course, AI in networking is just getting started, but the results I've seen so far are pretty amazing -- including reports from network installers and managed service providers. And I expect these benefits to flourish if service providers see this opportunity for what it is -- the future of their businesses.

This was last published in February 2019

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