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Mobile World Congress 2023: Microsoft Expands Wireless Azure Services

A handful of Azure for Operators improvements and additions for 5G communications service providers (CSPs) were unveiled by Microsoft this week atthe Mobile World Congress 2023 in Barcelona, Spain.

Microsoft's broad marketing themes for CSPs were summarized by Francesco Venturini, corporate vice president of media and communications at Microsoft, in this announcement. Those themes include:

  • Using Microsoft-acquired Nuance AI technology in call centers, which can be used with the Microsoft Dynamics 365 Customer Service product.
  • Automate processes using Microsoft Teams Phone and HoloLens, as well partner integration efforts (Amdocs, and Tech Mahindra were mentioned).
  • Use new Azure for Operators technologies for "carrier grade, hybrid cloud" operator deployments (partners BTNokia and Deutsche Telekom were mentioned).
  • Enable operators to monetize 5G and network edge opportunities through software-defined networking and Internet of Things services (partners MediaKindMatrixxNvidia and Blue Planet–Ciena were mentioned).

Microsoft is also marketing is its software-defined networking and edge technologies under the Azure for Operators umbrella to 5G wireless CSPs to help them build things such as "smart roads" and "smart airports," in addition to smart factories.

5G and Outer Space?
The latest Azure for Operators improvements were summarized by Jason Zander, executive vice president for strategic missions and technologies at Microsoft, in this announcement. Typically, Microsoft's Azure for Operators has been aimed at providing software-defined networking and network edge improvements for CSPs, or mobile telcos. However, Zander didn't rule out a Microsoft expansion into space communications to support 5G telcos as well.

"The future cloud, however, will look very different from the cloud of today," Zander wrote. "It will expand to become a highly distributed fabric, spanning 5G to space."

Microsoft already has a separate Azure Space effort that so far has built ground stations for satellite networks. Zander wasn't specific about this space effort for 5G telcos, but he suggested that "it will be powered by a modern network infrastructure and will enable a new application and connectivity paradigm -- what we call modern connected apps -- that puts compute even closer to the problems we need to solve."

By "modern connected apps," Microsoft in this instance means applications that run at the network edge using high-bandwidth 5G connections and software-defined networking, according to this announcement by Cesar De la Torre Llorente of Microsoft. Developers specifically can build such applications using Microsoft's open source MEC Application Solution Accelerator, which supports microservices-based apps running on containers, with "AI model inferencing capabilities."

Another modern connected apps perk for developers is the private preview of Azure Programmable Connectivity, which "will deliver a consistent, transparent experience across multiple connectivity environments such as public and private LTE/5G networks, as well as wired and satellite networks," according to Zander. Microsoft is collaborating with API platform providers AT&T, Rogers and T-Mobile in North America on Azure Programmable Connectivity. It's also collaborating with Deutsche Telekom and Telefonica in Europe, plus Singtel in Asia.

Modern connected apps can be "run anywhere," including Private and Public 5G Multi-Access Edge Compute (MEC) networks, enterprises and cloud regions, as well as space, according to a diagram in that announcement.

Satya Nadella, Microsoft's CEO, had also suggested last year that Azure for Operators could be paired with the Azure Orbital groundstation-as-a-service offering for "fast downlinking of data," but this possibility wasn't described by Zander.

Azure for Operators Additions
Zander summarized Azure for Operators improvement since last year's advancements. Azure Private 5G Core, which previewed in June, is now generally available. Azure Private 5G Core is a Multi-Access Edge Compute service that lets operators deploy a 5G network using Azure Stack Edge, which does machine-learning processing before sending data to Azure.

Azure Private MEC has a newly introduced "Azure Edge Network Fabric" at the private preview stage for secure routing between cloud, edge and on-premises networks and applications.  Microsoft also previewed a Radio Access Network Observability capability for performance monitoring using Azure Private MEC. Microsoft kicked off an "ISV Program for Azure private MEC" as well for creating modern connected apps. Current telco partners using Azure Private MEC include "AT&T, British Telcom, Deutsche Telekom, Etisalat, STC, Tampnet and Telefonica."

One completely new addition is a public preview of Azure Operator Nexus, which was described as a "next-generation hybrid cloud platform created for communications service providers (CSPs)." These telcos can use it to run their operations in Microsoft Azure or in their own premises infrastructure.

Azure Operator Nexus is a "first-party Microsoft product" that expands on Azure Operator Distributed Services, which was announced last year as combining Microsoft's acquisition of AT&T Network Cloud technologies with Azure services to deliver monitoring, analytics and security services for 5G and voice network operators. Azure Operator Nexus is specifically designed to host "carrier-grade network functions," with fast-packet processing, both on premises and on Azure.

Microsoft has released Azure Operator Nexus to AT&T and is working with other operators. It also has system integrator and network function partner support for the product. Its new Operator Nexus Ready program "certifies that the ecosystem of cloud-native network functions (CNFs), virtual network functions (VNFs), and other software interoperate with the Operator Nexus platform."

Microsoft also announced that its Azure Communications Gateway service, which helps connect public switched telephone networks to Microsoft Teams, has reached "general availability" commercial release status. Azure Communications Gateway has session border controller and API bridge technologies to integrate with Microsoft Teams services, namely "Operator Connect and Teams Phone Mobile services." It's described as an alternative to using Session Initiation Protocol that eases the connections.

A new Azure Operator Voicemail service, currently at the private preview stage, lets operators move their voicemail to Azure infrastructure. It uses Microsoft's network, but keeps CSP subscription data within regulatory-prescribed geographies. It can also support private connections using the "Azure Peering Service and ExpressRoute." Operators get graphical dashboard to monitor voicemail service health.

Microsoft announced public previews of two "AIOps" services for 5G CSPs, namely "Azure Operator Insights and Azure Operator Service Manager." Azure Operator Insights permits analysis of data from "multi-part or multi-vendor network functions" to determine subscriber experiences and network health. Azure Operator Service Manager is a tool for managing complex services "across Azure cloud and edge platforms."

Microsoft is continuing to expand its Azure Public MEC solutions. AT&T is now using it in Detroit, Atlanta and Dallas. Singtel is using it in Singapore.

In making its Azure for Operators announcements this week, Microsoft plugged partner participation along the way. Partner efforts are listed in this Microsoft partner news page for Mobile World Congress 2023.

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