Network slicing promises optimized 5G bandwidth for business-critical specialized services.

Network slicing promises optimized 5G bandwidth for business-critical specialized services.

While 5G offers many compelling potential benefits for business, an emerging capability called network slicing promises to bring an unprecedented level of flexibility to the provisioning and configuration of 5G network resources.

This emerging feature—as the term “network slicing” suggests—is a way to carve up cellular bandwidth to create unique, logical, and virtualized networks over a multi-domain infrastructure. These slices can create unprecedented potential for advanced specialized services that can be differentiated across the 5G network.

Network slicing represents a major advance for the industry because it enables new value-added services that are more efficient and cost effective. And this next-generation capability will have much to offer businesses and consumers as well, likely including service level agreements (SLAs) for their most critical data and applications.

As the research firm Gartner notes: “Network slicing is an enabler to unlock the full value proposition of 5G as a platform for innovation to drive improved value for enterprise verticals, partners, and small and medium businesses, and consumer services as well as efficiencies for CSPs.”

There are myriad use cases for 5G network slicing—from improved quality of service (QoS) for common applications such as public safety communications and traffic management, to emerging scenarios where network performance is vital to business outcomes and user experiences. Industrial automation, expansive sensor networks, and connected smart cars are among the possibilities.

For businesses, it could bring benefits like cellular services that are optimized for emerging “edge” computing and Internet of Things applications; improvements in the quality and reliability of services; and opportunities to provide new consumer-facing applications and services.

As the research firm Gartner notes: “Network slicing is an enabler to unlock the full value proposition of 5G as a platform for innovation to drive improved value for enterprise verticals, partners, and small and medium businesses, and consumer services as well as efficiencies for CSPs.”1

How does 5G network slicing work?

5G network slicing requires a Standalone 5G network. These networks comprise end-to-end 5G hardware infrastructure—Standalone 5G radio access technology, Standalone 5G core, routers, and switches—and software that ties those components together and manages bandwidth and other resources across the network.

Network slicing is similar in concept to the way a logistics company delivers packages based on shipping priority. Whereas physical packages are “tagged” based on how they’re supposed to be treated and then shipped accordingly, network slices are digitally tagged, telling the communications solutions provider (CSP) what network resources need to be used—and how they get used—to deliver on a given customer’s SLA. And as we’ve all experienced, heavier or more time-sensitive shipping requirements may incur higher costs.

This software-defined architecture makes it possible to establish logical networks that run on top of the physical 5G network infrastructure. Within this virtualized environment, bandwidth can be partitioned into segments, and applications or users can be uniquely identified to achieve the required service levels. For example, a slice potentially could be used for public safety first-responder traffic, where an SLA for improved latency enhances the communication capabilities between an ambulance and a hospital.

Automated & orchestrated.

Each slice of a network, with its performance characteristics, security rules and logical topology, may extend from the point of network access, across the 5G core network, to endpoints. And because network slicing must be able to scale to thousands of businesses, provisioning and management will by necessity be a highly automated and orchestrated process. 

5G network slicing may also be a good way to establish synergies among the three primary types of 5G services: enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB), massive machine-type communications (mMTC), and ultra-reliable, low-latency communications (URLLC), according to researchers who discussed the topic in a paper published by the IEEE.

“Network slicing allocates the network computing, storage, and communication resources among the active services with the aim of guaranteeing their isolation and given performance levels,” the authors write.

Autonomous cars, trucks, and tractors.

5G network slicing may be especially well suited for operating autonomous vehicles, including those controlled remotely by humans. This kind of navigation requires a wireless network with broad 5G coverage across a wide variety of geographies. This ensures the required network capabilities are within reach to deliver precise and reliable navigation.

“With network slicing, you’re making that more practical and safer because you’re lessening the disparity between what’s going on in the real world and what the driver of the car is actually seeing,” says Rick Balakier, Director, Corporate Development with T-Mobile’s Advanced & Emerging Technologies team and a leader within the 5G Open Innovation Lab.

The dynamic is similar to other autonomous equipment, such as GPS-guided farm tractors or robotic excavators used for mining. Here, network slicing could be an excellent way to increase operational accuracy and efficiency by decreasing network latency.

Instantaneous response in remote healthcare.

Telemedicine, by definition, is conducted over telecommunications networks—the faster and more responsive, the better.

5G network slicing may make it possible to advance telemedicine in new areas of specialty by providing dedicated bandwidth for procedures requiring precision and millisecond interactivity, such as using robotics for heart surgery.

5G network slicing could also be used to connect ambulances with emergency rooms for real-time diagnosis as a patient is rushed to the hospital.

5G network slicing may make it possible to advance telemedicine in new areas of specialty by providing dedicated bandwidth for procedures requiring precision and millisecond interactivity, such as using robotics for heart surgery. 

Virtual experiences at the ballpark.

Sports stadiums and entertainment complexes have become highly connected sites with streaming media, helmet-attached cameras, and real-time analytics. For operators of sports or entertainment venues, network slicing promises to transform the spectator experience even more by enabling mixed reality and other virtual experiences.

Using its current 5G capabilities, T-Mobile has demonstrated an augmented reality application that lets fans wearing smart glasses throw a virtual pitch or take cyber batting practice at T-Mobile Park, home of the Seattle Mariners professional baseball team.

As such immersive experiences become mainstream, 5G network slicing could be used to provide the guaranteed network performance necessary for things like high-fidelity motion tracking.

Similarly, 5G network slicing could be used to help ensure that video and audio are synchronized during live broadcasts. That would eliminate any time-lag dissonance that might be experienced by someone physically at the ballpark while also following the game on their mobile device.

“Live broadcast networks want guarantees that when they cut to that camera, it’s going to work right. So network slicing is a big thing,” says Craig Schieber, Director, Strategy & Planning with T-Mobile’s Advanced & Emerging Technologies team.

5G network slicing is just getting started.

T-Mobile and other CSPs are still in the early stages of 5G network slicing implementation. Gartner describes the industry as being in the “get started” phase of a three-phase rollout.2

In Phase 2, according to Gartner, “the focus is to drive scale and increased efficiency, while beginning to offer new capabilities, such as dynamic slicing and a platform approach to support innovation in use cases.” 

“The goal in Phase 3 is to enhance business value and customer experience by enabling self-serve,” the research firm adds, “exposing operational management capabilities to third parties and differentiating QoS and SLA management based on sub-use cases.” 

If all goes as planned, 5G network slicing could become a popular and differentiating capability that drives new use cases—and greater 5G adoption by businesses and consumers alike.

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