Communication technology has been a catalyst for the digitisation of society and is a significant contributor to GDP growth across the world. Looking ahead, there is no reason to doubt that mobile communications will continue to develop, reaching industry segments such as automotive, manufacturing, logistics and energy, as well as sectors such as financial, healthcare and others that are not currently fully exploiting the potential of mobile services.
The suboptimal use of the mobile network is due to the diversity, and even conflicting, communications requirements of such businesses. One business customer, for example, may require ultra-reliable services, whereas other business customers may need ultra-high-bandwidth communication or extremely low latency. The 5G network needs to be designed to be able to offer a different mix of capabilities to meet all these diverse requirements at the same time. From a functional point of view, the most logical approach is to build a set of dedicated networks, each adapted to serve one type of business customer. These dedicated networks would permit the implementation of tailor-made functionality and network operation specific to the needs of each business customer, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach as witnessed in the current and previous mobile generations, which would not be economically viable.
A much more efficient approach is to operate multiple dedicated networks on a common platform – this is effectively what “network slicing” allows. Network slicing is the embodiment of the concept of running multiple logical networks as virtually independent business operations on a common physical infrastructure in an efficient and economical way. This is a radical change of paradigm compared to the current implementations. With network slicing, the 5G network will be able to adapt to the external environment rather than the other way around. Just as digitisation has opened up the consumer market to a previously unimaginable array of experiences (mostly from outside the mobile ecosystem), slicing, and the adaption capabilities within, will be a catalyst for business customers, enabling them to facilitate their activities in ways that may seem unimaginable today.
In combination with network slicing, 5G networks will permit business customers to enjoy connectivity and data processing tailored to the specific business requirements that adhere to the service level agreement (SLA) entered into with the operator. The customisable network capabilities include data speed, quality, latency, reliability, security and services.
In combination with network slicing, 5G networks will permit business customers to enjoy connectivity and data processing tailored to specific business requirements.
From an operator’s point of view, a network slice is an independent end-to-end logical network that runs on a shared physical infrastructure, capable of providing a negotiated service quality. The technology enabling network slicing is transparent to business customers. A network slice could span multiple parts of the network (for example, terminals, access network, core network and transport network) and could also be deployed across multiple operators. A network slice comprises dedicated and/or shared resources, for instance, in terms of processing power, storage and bandwidth, and has isolation from the other network slices.
Slice types could be defined from a functional or behavioural perspective. It is therefore anticipated that mobile network operators could deploy a single network slice type that satisfies the needs of multiple verticals as well as multiple network slices of different types that are packaged as a single product targeted towards business customers (a business bundle) who have multiple and diverse requirements (for example, a vehicle may simultaneously need a high-bandwidth slice for infotainment and an ultra-reliable slice for telemetry-assisted driving).
Creating a “smart” network
Today’s operators are primarily concerned with carrying information from A to B. Limited scope is available for customising the characteristics of their network in order to be able, for example, to provide infrastructure to host third-party applications/data embedded within the network or to allow third parties to integrate network functionality in the processes or systems’ third parties, which have already been deployed. Network slicing is set to change this paradigm by unlocking new types of utilisation models, some of which are as follows…
- Hosting applications: Operators can have the capability of hosting applications (for example, enterprise applications) as well as to collect relevant data within a network slice. Data collected in the slice, together with external sources, can be used by machine learning algorithms to predict future trends or to improve analytics, and more generally, to improve the performance and efficiency of the enterprise application. In this scenario, the operator will ensure that mission-critical application data and processes on a network slice are completely isolated from other slices that run on the same infrastructure.
- Capability exposure: Operators can offer business customers the capability to manage their own services or slices (for example, dimensioning and configuration) by means of application programming interfaces (APIs) offered through a contract or SLA. These APIs will also provide access to network-specific information, allowing each business customer to derive insights into, for instance, the perceived service quality, current network condition or the environment.
- Integration in existing business processes: Some business customers may already have a communication or computation infrastructure in operation, for example, within an industrial area. If required, this infrastructure can be integrated into the network slice.
Application across industries
The following examples detail a few of the more diverse use cases to highlight the potential of network slicing…
- Automotive slice: A modern “connected” vehicle requires an extremely versatile network that can simultaneously deliver high throughput of in-car entertainment, ultra-reliability and low latency communications (URLLC) for assisted/autonomous driving, data gathering and analysis from telemetry sensors, device-to-device communication and possibly more.
- Industry automation: A factory may order a URLLC slice from the operator for industrial automation production, allowing robots in the production line to be controlled and monitored.
- Slice for the enterprise network: In the traditional network, the security requirements of enterprises are usually fulfilled by establishing a private network, or by overlaying additional authentication methods at the service level. By introducing network slicing, customised authentication can be implemented during the procedure of slice selection and access. The private network is no longer needed. For example, a taxi company may require a network slice optimised to dispatch and manage vehicles. The company can trace the vehicle location and provide an uncongested route for the vehicle.
- Slice for massive IoT: Operators can deploy different slices for different internet of things (IoT) users. For example, a transport traffic management department may order a massive IoT network slice to monitor and manage the real-time status of their systems. With this slice, they can collect real-time traffic information through massive machine-type communications terminals. They can then analyse the information (with respect to traffic jams for instance) and publish it on their monitor screens to inform users.
- AR/VR live broadcast: News, sports or music concerts could be broadcast live for users to enjoy through augmented reality (AR) or virtual reality (VR) technology. AR/VR live broadcast service requires a network with features such as one-to-many downlink connections, high density computing and quality of service requirements.
- Service continuity across multiple networks: Many 5G use cases are based on the expectation of ubiquitous access and network services and will be realised without the need for complicated business engagement with many operators.
Mobile networks have so far been inflexible. Customers (people, businesses and machines) had to take what was available, and all mobile networks had very similar services to offer. With 5G, mobile networks will change gear and become smarter, more flexible and more tailored to specific customers’ needs. Network slicing will enable these smart networks to be tailored around the unique service requirements of different business customers. s
Based on the paper, “Introduction to Network Slicing”, by the GSM Association