Cityfibre prioritizes automation for “friction free” customer journeys
Speed is imperative for operators in the UK’s crowded fibre market as more than a hundred altnets race to roll out fibre broadband against established players BT Openreach and Virgin Media O2. For CityFibre, automation is top priority to support its pacy build plan and customer migrations. Vicky Higgin, Chief Digital and Information Officer at Cityfibre, talked to Inform about how the operator is automating processes to support customers and partners and why it is important to “think slow to go fast.”
Cityfibre is the UK’s largest alternative fibre wholesale operator with a goal to connect 8 million homes and businesses across the country, including mobile and public sector sites. Its network already reaches 2.8 million premises and 2.5 million of those are ready for service for ISPs to connect their customers. The operator also participates in the government-subsidized Project Gigabit rural broadband program, having won four large contracts this year.
To keep up the pace of fiber build and accelerate customer take up, the operator wants to automate everything it can. “Nothing is off the table” when it comes to automation across operational and business support systems (OSS/BSS) and other corporate systems, said Higgin.
But she cautioned against rushing into automation without having a well-planned implementation strategy, clear business objective, and architectural and data security standards and principles in place.
“We don’t just dive into it and implement it … we make sure we’ve got the right policies and standards. We wouldn’t automate anything without taking a good think about it strategically. Where we can get caught out is by jumping to action without thinking it through,” she said.
Taking time early on to get the architecture right and establish standard ways of working is essential for improving efficiency and speeding development and time to market. Higgin calls this “thinking slow to go fast.” That is, “have a good think about it first, know how you want to architect everything, and then you can develop really fast,” she explained.
Here, she noted that Cityfibre follows TM Forum standards, including Open APIs and Open Digital Architecture, and that they have been instrumental for enabling the operator’s automation strategy. “Our architecture and development teams spend a lot of time collaborating with TM Forum and they cannot speak highly enough about it. It’s nice to see something they are so passionate about as well,” she said.
Cityfibre has automated many processes with its install partners and ISPs. For example, the operator recently launched an automated workflow for fault repairs with one of its contractors Kelly Group called “Fault, Fix, Go Live.” Previously, if an ISP found a fault, they would call Cityfibre’s technical support desk, which would locate the customer premise and call or email Kelly’s team to assign the repair task. Now, these manual processes are automated via an API. The ISP can book a repair through an online portal, which automatically creates and assigns the job to Kelly engineers. Further processing brings the incident management full cycle as CityFibre consumes engineer appointment updates via the API to drive automated follow-on actions: real-time updates on progress (engineer on way, engineer arrived etc), closure of resolved incidents, creation of follow-on appointments, updates to ISP, prompts to ISP for their action or flagging for manual CifyFibre attention if necessary. This all drastically reduces the reliance on manual interaction to manage incidents.
In some of the feedback from employees, they say they feel like “a weight has been lifted off their shoulders” and that they have more time to focus on other work, said Higgin.
The operator looks for opportunities like this to streamline manual tasks with zero or low-touch interaction. In another recent example, it is trialling a proactive fault monitoring system with several ISPs that automatically launches an incident response when a fault is detected and informs the ISP of repair progress and resolution. The results of the trial have been positive, but it has not yet reached the stage where it would be operationalized and put into production.
The operator also uses APIs to make it easier for ISPs to onboard their customers to the network and make these customer migrations “friction free.” This requires collaboration with its ISP customers and starts with a review of their processes to identify what can be automated. “It’s always process first. There’s no point putting technology over bad process,” explained Higgin.
Cityfibre has approximately 40 ISP customers, including Giganet, TalkTalk, and Vodafone UK. Their back office systems are in various stages of development, which could make integration difficult. Some may have built systems that were designed only for Openreach requirements, for example, before wholesale alternatives like Cityfibre became viable options. As needed, the operator works with ISPs to share standards and documentation, get them up to speed, and align technology strategies.
While these collaborative efforts are necessary to enable integration, this is also where standards -based API comes in.
“If you have an Open API, anybody can work with anybody. That’s why the TM Forum work is so important,” she said, adding that the operator encourages the use of APIs “wherever possible.”
Through collaboration and automation, Cityfibre, its partners and ISP customers can be more efficient, can keep unit costs down and, with zero-touch operations, there are few chances for human errors, she explained.
“We're quite a way down the road in terms of automation because we've got great technologies on which to do it with and we can do it quickly. Our challenge as an organisation is prioritising where we go first,” she said, in terms of specific projects.
Broadly, Cityfibre is prioritizing automation in the areas of migrating new customers onto its network along with the launch and operation of new products. A recent launch example is the introduction of a wholesale 2.5Gbps symmetrical XGS-PON product for consumer broadband services. As for the fibre rollout, Higgin said that is “in good shape” and the focus has shifted to improving what the operator has already put in place.
The operator is also considering how it can further apply artificial intelligence (AI) to automated processes. Cityfibre already uses AI to ensure build quality with its contractors, by using the tech to analyze photos of installations. It also uses AI in customer chatbots and certain internal IT applications and it is actively using AI in software development to speed up the time it takes to deliver solutions.
With AI and automation, Higgin emphasized the importance of having good data as well as security and governance policies for protecting customer data, including masking personally identifiable information and deleting data after it is used.
“Without good data, you can't automate. Data is the lifeblood of what you need to do … It’s important to make sure our data is right and we’re adhering to all the regulatory policies around [data] and AI. The worst thing we could do is just drop something in without thinking about it and then causing problems afterwards,” she said.
It all comes back to Higgins’ methodical, “thinking slow” approach. Taking time to think “strategically” and establishing architecture, standards, and policies before acting on AI, automation, and data projects, for Higgin, that means doing it “properly.”