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More than five decades of dedicated research has made Norwegian Telenor a notable player in technologies that pave our way into the future. Advances in artificial intelligence and its applications, next-generation technologies, and a more sustainable, energy-efficient mobile networks are all a part of their story. Today Telenor’s research services, research outcomes, and business insights are also available to DNA and its customers, as DNA has been a part of Telenor Group since 2019.
In 1967 Telenor – back then still called Televerket – established a research department to support the move from analog to digital connections in telecommunications in Norway. “And I guess you could say that we are still on that road of digitalization,” says Dagfinn Myhre, Head of External Relations at Telenor Research.
Telenor Research Unit concentrates on three areas. The first one is networks, such as applications of 5G technology, and future networks like 6G. The second looks at analytics and artificial intelligence and their application. The third is looking into topics such as behavioral economics, long-term benefits for Telenor in customer trends, future business models, and the changing regulatory environment.
One of the current research topics is artificial intelligence, usually abbreviated to AI, and its application in, for example, speech-to-text innovation.
“Last year, we had a project where we developed a speech-to-text transcriber using a spoken text database. The idea was to build an AI that would understand the spoken variety of Norwegian. About 90 percent of all our customer service is still voice-based, and there is a lot of room for automation. This would help us in, for instance, building better chatbots and improve customer service and satisfaction,” Bjørn Taale Sandberg, Head of Telenor Research says.
A team of researchers spent two months manually transcribing and labeling customer service recordings and used that data to train an AI algorithm to do it automatically for new data.
“We were able to achieve a 75 percent transcription success rate, which is state of the art,” Sandberg says.
The effort on development and research meant that Telenor and research partners were able to secure 2,5 MEUR funding to continue with the work.
Research by nature is global and built on wide networks. And it applies to Telenor Research as well.
“We have collaborated with the Norwegian School of Economics NHH, the University of Oslo, and Norwegian University of Science and Technology NTNU for a long time as well as with companies facing digital disruptions within their own sector, like Den Norske Bank within finance,” Dagfinn Myhre says.
From the more commercial point of view, investing in research offers two benefits for Telenor. The first one could be classified as internal.
“Telenor Research provides the business with in-depth insight into technologies and trends. This is something that the operating companies do not necessarily have time to look at themselves,” Myhre says.
In short, it aids in making more informed, analytical decisions. The second benefit is more external, such as improved customer service and cost savings, deriving for example from AI applications.
The research collaboration reaches beyond Norway’s borders. An example of international research collaboration is with the Harvard School of Public Health. The research started in 2014 with the Telenor research team looking at how to predict the spread of dengue fever, an infectious disease.
The study used anonymous and aggregated mobility data to quantify and analyze human mobility patterns and used this information to better understand how diseases spread. The research was later expanded onto malaria, another tropical disease. The research results were published in one of the world’s most prestigious scientific publications, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
For the past year, these learnings have included the spread of Covid-19 in Norway, and they have been used to aid political decision-making.
“This is not a commercial initiative for us – it is a part of doing public good,” Myhre says.
While key, not everything Telenor Research does, is strictly aimed at increasing business.
Over the years, the department has grown into a team of 40 plus researchers.
“When we started in 1967, the research department was seen as a way to draw in highly competent people to work at Telenor and to raise the skill level of the organization,” Myhre points out.
Today the research department has 41 employees, of whom 80 percent hold a Ph.D. It is an international team of 10 different nationalities. Diversity is seen as a benefit for the quality of research.
“We are a cross-disciplinary unit: while we employ many technology-oriented people like engineers and computer scientists, our ranks also include economists and social scientists. It is critical for innovation that we are not monolithic and that we connect with different partners,” Sandberg says.
Skilled researchers in technology are highly sought after, but for Telenor, recruitment has not been an issue.
“Our research department is a rather attractive place to work, and especially so for those interested in artificial intelligence and its applications. We can offer a research position where you have access to real-world data and can build applications that the organization can use in its work,” Sandberg says.
This has been a successful strategy. The company can boast about several innovations and patents over the years, including the original work that became the web-browser Opera and standardization work and patent for, for example, the MPEG-4 multimedia standard.
“Currently, we are focused more on research that can inform strategy and lead to products or practices to help the operation rather than patents,” Sandberg says.
Perhaps this could be what Telenor Research is in a nutshell: strength from diversity and inclusion in research, fresh business insight, and theory combined with real-world usability.
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