Many Possibilities, One Infrastructure: Network Slicing in 5G

Many Possibilities, One Infrastructure: Network Slicing in 5G
Many distinct networks, one unified infrastructure – this is the promise of network slicing. By keeping critical business connectivity and public connections separate, could this be the killer app that 5G so desperately needs?

Network slicing is a key feature of 5G – perhaps the key feature – that allows for many separate virtual networks, each tailored to specific service requirements, to function on a single physical network.

You could have a slice of the network which is reserved for improved quality public connectivity, and separate slices for specialist applications, such as online virtual reality gaming, emergency communications, or industrial automation, where guaranteed connectivity and dedicated network performance is vital.

With network slicing, CSPs can carve out a dedicated share of their network ahead of time, and deploy in a matter of minutes; in a lab trial by Ericsson and Vodafone last year, engineers demonstrated the set-up of a network slice on a 5G Standalone network in half an hour. This means that they can more effectively monetise their networks by selling dedicated slices for conferences, sports events, and concerts and festivals.

While network slicing has been garnering attention since 2017, widespread adoption has been hindered by various challenges, not least the rollout of 5G Standalone, on which network slicing is largely dependent. Earlier this summer, T-Mobile USA pulled off the first reported real-world use of network slicing in Boston at a Red Bull-sponsored Cliff Diving World Series event.

By creating dedicated partitions in T-Mobile’s 5G SA network for event staff and guests, the broadcast team could easily manage and transfer footage from cameras and drones via wireless connection, while attendees could go online and upload pictures and videos without interfering with production.

Not to be outdone, Ericsson and Vodafone UK collaborated on a cloud gaming 5G SA network slicing trial with Coventry University; 88% of participants rated this 5G SA gaming experience highly compared to just 13% of users on a standard connection, with a “270% increase in throughput, a 25% decrease in latency and 57% less jitter, as well as smoother graphics rendering.”

Meanwhile, Telia Norway and the Norwegian Defence Materiel Agency created a private network for the Norwegian Armed Forces using network slicing, producing an “isolated military network inside a commercial mobile network.”

A network slice can be looked at as a complete end-to-end network, that protects network resources from non-critical uses. From a single network layer, multiple virtual networks can be spun up, configured, and disassembled, if needs be. Alternatively, it is possible to host each slice on its own dedicated hardware; though more costly and time-consuming to maintain, this provides a degree of redundancy in the event of faults, outages, and even security breaches.

Single-Network Slice Selection Assistance Information (S-NSSAI) provides the primary identification of a network slice, determines the appropriate network slice to allocate to the user, and is used to establish a connection to the desired slice. The S-NSSAI allows for flexibility and scalability in 5G networks by providing the necessary information to identify, differentiate, and allocate network resources for various services and applications. The S-NSSAI is made up of two components:
  • The Slice / Service Type (SST), which represents the specific service provided by the network slice, such as eMBB, mMTC, and URLLC. Within this is the Slice Differentiator (SD), a unique identifier that further distinguishes between different slices of the same service type if multiple slices carry the same SST value.
  • The Data Network Name (DNN) represents the name of the network slice and is used by the User Equipment (UE) to request the establishment of a specific network slice. The DNN is a human-readable string that provides information about the slice, such as the type of service or application it supports.
Operators can optimise network resource allocation based on specific service requirements, improving network efficiency, and delivering enhanced user experiences.

Implementing network slicing involves advanced software-defined networking (SDN) and network function virtualisation (NFV) to deploy and manage network resources. In particular, network slicing relies heavily on SDN to separate the control plane from the data plane, and to manage the allocation of resources to different slices in real-time.

Soon, operators will be able to monetise their 5G services by offering premium network slices. In fact, Nokia has already successfully trialled a new solution for end-users to purchase and activate network slices from their operator via an Android smartphone, enabling CSPs to monetise 5G slicing services based on required levels of network performance, quality and security.

Industry analysts at ABI Research have noted that the network slicing market has lost some of its momentum in line with the general slowdown of the 5G market, but they still predict a market size of $19.5 billion by 2028, invigorated in large part by the promise of enterprise use cases in mMTC and URLLC services.

However, as the number of network slices increases, managing them becomes more complex, which can limit scalability, and ensuring that devices and services within each slice communicate and interoperate. If not managed correctly, some slices may suffer from underutilisation or overutilisation, compounded by a lack of universal standards for network slicing.

Automation is going to be the key to ensuring that network slices adapt quickly to changing demands. Efficiently managing multiple slices requires sophisticated orchestration systems that understand the unique requirements of each use case and then allocate resources, configure network functions and monitor performance in real-time with zero-touch management. As ABI Research put it: “a solid software and cloud-native foundation must be in place for that promise to materialise.”

Nevertheless, operators must invest in 5G SA core networks in order to support network slicing, but until they start seeing the revenue from these initial deployments, they may be reluctant to splash any more cash. The challenge is on to develop and sell new business models that can monetise the benefits of network slicing.

T-Mobile USA continues to push its 5G credentials, recently announcing the launch of a network slicing beta for developers, with a focus on teleconferencing applications. Having seen an explosion in use over the last few years, data traffic on video-calling apps has increased dramatically, along with the demand for “lower latency… and increased reliability.” If successful, T-Mobile has an eye to expand this beta to other use cases in the future.

Though currently in its infancy, network slicing could drive greater 5G adoption for both consumers and businesses, providing additional high-quality and secure bandwidth tailored to application-specific use cases. This will, naturally, command a higher price than standard wireless connectivity.

Building and maintaining separate slices for different services can be costly, especially for smaller network operators. Even for established CSPs, implementing and managing network slices can be complex, and require significant investment in infrastructure and SDN technology.

It’s up to CSPs to decide on their pricing and monetisation strategies, offering premium network slices that cater to various customer and enterprise slicing demands.

For more on the increasing potential of 5G, read how 5G New Radio and 5G Standalone can deliver new services at high speed and low latency to consumers, enterprises and industry.

Speak to us today to learn more about how Cerillion solutions can help your business create new services and revenue streams with network slicing.