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Vodafone pens ‘risky’ AI deal with Google Cloud

The telco is thinking big on AI, but increasing its reliance on a provider which could become a competitor.

By Ryan Morrison

Vodafone has partnered with Google Cloud on a new “AI Booster” platform that is capable of handling thousands of machine learning models per day. The company says the deal will help it towards its goal of scaling up its use of AI across multiple countries, but this close relationship with one of the public cloud hyperscalers, which are increasingly seen as competitors to telcos, may be detrimental to its long-term prospects.

employee in a cloud data centre
Vodafone says its partnership with Google Cloud will allow for more rapid deployment of machine learning models (Photo: gorodenkoff/iStock)

Announced today, the AI Booster has been in the works for 18 months and is part of a wider plan from Vodafone to integrate artificial intelligence and machine learning into its core business and allow for the “rapid building and deploying of machine learning use cases”.

This example of enterprise-scale AI is part of an ongoing relationship between Google Cloud and Vodafone that included moving the data used by the entire organisation into what it describes as a “single source of truth” hosted on Google Cloud. This allowed for new tools, such as the AI Booster, to be built with access to this data.

The tools are built using Google’s Vertex AI, which is designed to allow developers and data scientists to more easily deploy, build and scale ML models. A Google spokesperson told Tech Monitor the tools are for internal use and will be deployed by “Vodafone commercial data scientists across their respective geographies. These data scientists ultimately build algorithms to improve the customer experience for Vodafone’s end customers.”

James Ma, Google Cloud head of technical account management said in a statement that building next-generation connectivity requires “going beyond what’s possible today and unlocking significant investment in new technology and change”, which includes enhancing customer experience and network performance with AI’s predictive capabilities.

How Vodafone’s Google Cloud partnership will work

A number of projects are already underway including one that involves anonymised, aggregated data being used to better map network coverage and capacity improvements to areas where customers need it most.

This deal extends the existing relationship between Google Cloud and Vodafone, which already included artificial intelligence tools. The move will allow for improved data quality, reduced data costs and “significantly increased efficiency” according to a Google spokesperson.

Vodafone had already made some moves in this direction, including improving efficiency through the use of machine learning, but this only revealed more potential use cases that required rapid scaling. To build industrial scale machine learning capabilities able to handle thousands of models per day over more than 18 countries quickly, required them to turn to one of the major cloud platforms.

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“To maximise business value at pace and scale, our vision was to enable fast creation and horizontal and vertical scaling of use cases in an automated, standardised manner,” said Cornelia Schaurecker, global group director for Big Data & AI at Vodafone.

Vodafone AI Booster is a cloud-native platform designed to integrate with another Vodafone product built on Google Cloud, the Neuron platform, which the firm says acts as a “brain and AI driver” for its machine learning models.

“As a technology platform, we’re incredibly proud of building a cutting-edge MLOps platform based on best-in-class Google Cloud architecture with in-built automation, scalability and security. The result is we’re delivering more value from data science, while embedding reliability engineering principles throughout,” said Ashish Vijayvargia, analytics product lead at Vodafone.

The key features include fully automated machine learning lifecycle compliance activities via reusable pipelines, containers and managed services. It also includes embedded security by design and the ability to capitalise on Google-native machine learning tooling.

“Vodafone’s flourishing relationship with Google Cloud is a vital aspect of our evolution toward becoming a world-leading tech communications company. It accelerates our ability to create faster, more scalable solutions to business challenges like improving customer loyalty and enhancing customer experience, whilst keeping Vodafone at the forefront of AI and data science,” says Cengiz Ucbenli, Global Head of Big Data and AI, Innovation, Governance at Vodafone. 

Google Cloud deal ‘a risk’ for Vodafone

Vodafone’s AI deal with Google Cloud highlights the growing, and at times uneasy, relationship between telcos and the cloud hyperscalers – Google and its two biggest rivals, Amazon’s AWS and Microsoft Azure.

Other examples include Norwegian telecommunications giant Telenor sealing a partnership with AWS. Last year, Telenet, Belgium’s third-largest telco, announced Google Cloud would be one of three vendors that would provide support for its 5G network, alongside telecommunications equipment makers Nokia and Ericsson.

Indeed, the cloud providers can increasingly provide software-defined telecoms infrastructure, delivered from the cloud and potentially replacing the role played by Vodafone and its rivals in the market. A poll taken in May at the Digital Services Provider Leaders Forum found that 44% of telcos identified competition from hyperscalers as their principal challenge. Almost as many highlighted ‘ill-defined services or cloud strategy’ as a significant barrier.

John Strand, telecom industry analyst and founder of Strand Consult, says this close relationship with Google Cloud could come back to bite Vodafone in the future.

“There are only three major vendors of public cloud services in the UK, AWS, Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud, and with a number of telecom operators making deals with one or more of the three, they are gaining power in the market," he says.

Strand says it was a surprise to see Vodafone so closely align itself to Google given it has previously talked about a lack of vendor diversity in the infrastructure market. “Right now Vodafone is making itself very dependent on Google," he explains. "This is probably a great deal for Google short, medium and long term, but probably a bad deal for Vodafone long term.”

Read more: 5G pushes mobile operators into a new technology paradigm

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