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Network Slicing for A World of Specialized 5G Connectivity

Chris Pearson, President, 5G Americas – July 2022

During my day-to-day conversations with people who are interested in wireless cellular technology, I often come across this question: “What makes 5G different than 4G?”

People are rightly interested in the benefits that the fifth generation of wireless can bring. They want to know if it’s worth the investment of their time and resources to get their equipment upgraded, so that they can take advantage of all these benefits. Consumers want to know if they can get better video quality, better coverage, and generally faster speeds. But businesses often have much deeper requirements.

In general, the benefits of 5G over 4G LTE come in three different buckets: 1) data throughput speeds that can be ten times or more faster than 4G (generally up to 1 gigabit per second in most real-life scenarios) 2) much lower network latency for more responsive applications and 3) the ability to handle up to a million devices per square kilometer. This slide below gives a good overview of the target objectives of these capabilities:

But what might not be entirely clear from this slide is the fact that wireless cellular networks are moving away from a general level of “best efforts” connectivity in the early days of cellular to sophisticated modern networks today. It used to be that if you were able to provide some basic level of connection, say, five megabits per second, that was sufficient for video and other data needs on a mobile device. In fact, it’s more than enough for many of today’s modern Internet of Things (IoT) devices and sensors, which generally only need a small dribble of occasional data.

However, as we continue to move into a world of more intensive data use, enterprises and organizations are finding that it’s not just the sheer number of connected devices that’s creating challenges – it’s also the *types* of connections that are growing in complexity. For instance, a stadium operator trying to manage tens of thousands of customer video uploads and downloads all in ultra-high-definition HD is going to require a very different network than that of a factory floor manager dealing with autonomous robots loading and unloading pallets, which need extremely low latency to ensure there are no collisions.

In our latest white paper, entitled “Commercializing 5G Network Slicing,” 5G Americas explores how companies today are addressing the complexity of all the different kinds of specialized connectivity needs in their network. Briefly, Network Slicing is a technology that creates independent logical mobile networks – network slices – on the same physical mobile network infrastructure. Each network slice can be an isolated end-to-end network tailored to fulfill diverse requirements required by specific applications or customers. It is one of the major enhancements in the 5G Standalone standards, and while it is still in its infancy, it is also one of the important pillars for enabling operators to create and deliver new types of services and applications.

Think of it this way: Some older networks were a bit like a hammer. You needed connectivity, so you used the only tool in the toolbox to achieve it. However, 5G networks have developed many different types of tools specialized for delivering the right kind of connectivity for any given situation – all the way down from the core network, transport networks, radio access networks, spectrum, and even the end user devices themselves. And just like any artisan with a large toolbox, it takes time, education, and expertise to wield those tools most effectively.

This is what enterprises and network operators are grappling with today – how can we right-fit the network resources specifically to the use cases that will be needed to deliver tomorrow’s amazing applications and services?

What we know is that delivering this level of network precision is not going to be able to be done on an ad hoc basis. Due to the vastly different types of use cases, needs for an enterprise or other type of entity, are going to continuously change, so provisioning resources needs to be both scalable and automated. In the earlier stadium example above, consider that the stadium operator must also ensure connectivity to tens of thousands of devices from the parking area, hallways, and meeting zones – and at specific times of day and calendar dates when there’s a ball game going on. It will have to be automatically managed, so that extra networking resources don’t have to be trucked in at the last minute, and all the proper billing and roaming agreements can be executed without delay.  

Consequently, depending on the exact use case and scenarios, network slices could need to consider things like the maximum number of user equipment (devices), maximum number of protocol data sessions, limitations on upload and download speeds per device, dynamic adjustments to data rate, constraints on simultaneous use of network slices, and support for different cell site selection. They’ll need to integrate into modern operations and business support systems (OSS and BSS) that manage an enterprise’s business processes, to ensure the right provisioning and data analytics can be performed. Figure 1.2 from “Commercializing 5G Network Slicing,” below shows how network slicing might be integrated end-to-end across different kinds of networks.

Figure 1.2 Network Slice Profile Examples & E2E View

So, what is the potential for such a technology? 

Many analysts and pundits think network slicing could be a key factor in monetizing 5G investments for network operators. International management consulting firm Arthur D Little analyzed more than 70 market reports examining more than 400 digital use cases in 70 industries. The report demonstrated that about six industries will account for around 90% of the addressable revenue – and only one or two use cases in each industry will account for most of the addressable revenue. From “Commercializing 5G Network Slicing,” the potential lies in these key areas:

Figure 2.1 The industries with the highest revenue potential for network slicing for CSPs (Network slicing: A go-to-market guide to capture the high revenue potential – Ericsson 2022)

The key use cases in these industries appear to include high throughput video in industries such as healthcare, transportation, and energy/utilities. Ultra-low latency for tele-operated vehicles and augmented or virtual reality also appeared to be strong cases. In any case, it will be up to the enterprise and operator to consider how the network slice could be implemented for these scenarios. Will these be temporary use cases like a boost for temporary performance in video or latency (like in gaming)? Or perhaps it’s a localized use case, like vehicle traffic at a busy intersection? Will the network slice be subscription-based? Policy based? Or application-based?

The different use-case decisions will have an impact on the architecture of the network, as each element of the network may be utilized differently – from RAN to core to transport networks. Shown below, an example of a slice-enabled private network might use radio resource partitioning to create the slice, which might then be routed to different places local servers or devices.

Figure 2.3 An example of slice enabled private network using radio resource partitioning

At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that Network Slicing is a sophisticated tool in the 5G connectivity toolbox. 5G networks, along with expected upcoming enhancements in 5G-Advanced and beyond, will offer unparalleled capabilities to address a vast number of connectivity scenarios – and even many that haven’t yet been imagined! But like that master craftsmen, it’s important to start understanding how to use the tools of the trade.

5G wireless networks are critical to this new era of innovation. Today’s 5G networks are different than previous communication networks. The industry is now evolving into something much more sophisticated on the back end to simplify solutions for customers using 5G’s great capabilities. The ecosystem for these opportunities is just beginning as it will require resources, time, dedication – and most of all, a little patience.

-Chris

Find out how Network Slicing is changing businesses.

Network Slicing is one of the key features of modern 5G wireless cellular networks. It offers the ability to right-fit network resources for highly precise and demanding use cases.

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