Network slicing: Where are we today and how far is there to go?

Network slicing is an exciting prospect for both telcos and enterprises, but the technology is still a long way away from large scale adoption. This article explores some examples of early tests and deployments, as well as considerations for telcos looking to monetise network slicing in the future.

The promise of network slicing

Network slicing promises to unlock some of the key benefits of 5G network architecture. By creating multiple, dedicated, end-to-end networks on the same infrastructure, network slicing promises operators the ability to provide flexible and secure networking services to their enterprise customers. For the telecoms industry, network slicing offers a chance to deliver tailored services to different enterprise customers in a dynamic way. Enterprises can benefit from services customised to their specific needs and even to specific use case requirements.

Yet despite the hype around this technology, and the opportunity for both telcos and enterprises, widespread rollout is still somewhat nascent given its dependence on the deployment of 5G standalone. This article explores some of the existing tests and deployments that have taken place to date, as well as the ways in which telcos can look to monetise network slicing as the technology matures.

Where are we today?

To reach the vision of dynamic network slicing, it relies on the fully virtualised infrastructure of 5G whereby network functions do not run on dedicated physical appliances, and instead run as software in data centres. Each network slice can run as a complete network with its own capabilities and characteristics, adapted to use case or customer-specific requirements. For example, one slice might be used to support applications that require ultra-low latency. Another might support IoT use cases, for example a factory with hundreds of IoT devices. Essentially, enterprise customers can be allocated to slices depending on the use cases they are looking to support. Furthermore, the inherent flexibility of this architecture allows new network slices to be created, operated and retired as needs change. This allows operators to cater to enterprises as their requirements evolve.

Given the dependency of network slicing on the rollout of 5G standalone, live deployments of this technology are understandable still in their early stages. Only a small number of operators have so far deployed 5G standalone core with early movers such as DNA in Finland, China Telecom and T-Mobile USA. But the majority of operators are yet to deploy a standalone core and are planning to do so in the next two years. For example, Telia, SK Telecom, Rogers, and Verizon are all aiming to deploy in 2022 and 2023. Until the technology to enable network slicing is more readily available, examples of live deployments will remain limited. We have outlined some early trials, as well as the first deployment of network slicing below.

Early end-to-end network slicing trials

Orange, Nokia and Schneider Electric

In June 2021, Orange and Nokia deployed a 4G/5G private network with network slicing functionality at Schneider Electric’s factory in Le Vaudreuil, France. Nokia’s slicing solution can be used with existing LTE and 5G (standalone and non-standalone) devices. In what Nokia and Orange claim as an industry first, it enables full slice connectivity through domain controller software in the RAN, core and transport layers. This functionality supports high levels of security, quality of service and scalability that are essential in supporting the Industry 4.0 use cases that Schneider Electric will be testing.

Ericsson, Deutsche Telekom and Samsung

Ericsson, Deutsche Telekom and Samsung collaborated earlier this year to deliver the world’s first 5G end-to-end network slicing trial. The trial demonstrated the benefits of end-to-end networking slicing for cloud virtual reality game streaming using Ericsson’s commercial grade 5G standalone core infrastructure. This includes the RAN, 5G cloud core, slide orchestration and ordering automation. The trial was undertaken at Deutsche Telekom’s lab in Bonn for a VR streaming game use case, using two independent network slices; one with the default mobile broadband slice and an optimised slice for cloud VR gaming. The optimised slice delivers higher throughput and lower latency and demonstrated an enhanced experience on the gaming slice despite network congestion.

Zeetta Networks and National Composites Centre (NCC)

In partnership with the NCC, a manufacturing research group, Zeetta Networks plans to deploy a sliceable private 5G network. The network will run on hardware and software provided by US-based RAN equipment provider, Airspan. This includes the provision of radios, distributed and centralised baseband units. Druid, a private networks integrator, will provide the local core which enables the slicing functionality. Taking the concept of slicing one step further, Zeetta has coined the term ‘network splicing’ which it is developing to enable automated, on-demand slicing from different networks to enhance flexibility and leverage optimal capacity and performance across these networks.

In the NCC deployment, three separate slices are combined: one from NCC’s own private network deployed at its HQ, another from private network deployed at a different location, and another from the public transport network. “For the first time in the world, an industrial 5G network can not only be customized and divided into multiple logical networks, but each of those virtual networks can be extended across a transport network to reach another virtual network in a completely different administrative domain,” said Zeetta Networks founder and CEO Vassilis Seferidis. “This would allow, for example, a critical asset to be tracked continuously in real time and with the same quality-of-service as it is transported from the point of production, to being received at the destination location.”

The question of monetisation

It is clear that network slicing is still in its early stages and operators are a long way from delivering on the promises of this technology at scale. But while the network technology matures, operators should also consider the commercial aspects and associated requirements on their IT systems (e.g. OSS and BSS) to enable operators to manage, orchestrate and monetise network slicing. Given slicing is designed to provide more tailored solutions to different types of customers, partners and use cases, operators’ IT systems must also be able to support various business models and service types, including more on demand services, charging for different outcomes (e.g. per slice of network capacity, instead of per byte), different payment or commercial models etc.

Additionally, operators should also look to review their go-to-market strategy. Network slices may be sold directly to enterprise, or to third parties on a wholesale basis. In the latter scenario, operators should ensure they still have access to value-added services in order to secure access to ongoing revenue opportunities.

Furthermore, operators can look to enhance their BSS to cater to enterprise customers in a flexible way to successfully capture new value streams. This could include:

  • Bespoke support for enterprise customers in designing and implementing their tailored made solutions
  • Improve omni-channel experiences and expand digital channel support in response to increased customer demand and complex billing enquiries
  • Dedicated teams to support B2B2X partnership models
  • Providing comprehensive technical and operational support
  • The use of automation and orchestration to manage diverse product catalogues including lifecycle and partner management

Ultimately, network slicing is an exciting prospect for operators and enterprise alike. Enabled by the rollout of 5G standalone, this technology can give rise to new use cases and enhanced revenue opportunities for telcos that are able to reimagine their commercial and BSS capabilities.

Author: Grace Donnelly is a Senior Consultant at STL Partners, specialising in Telco Cloud

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