Network Slicing at Your Fingertips: A Vertical Industry Centric Approach
Network slicing has been lauded as one of the key features that 5G will enable, which will be especially meaningful for enterprise customers to benefit from the latest communication technologies. Without having to invest in building a private network, businesses can buy a dedicated virtual network out of a common network infrastructure. Over the last five years, many trials have been conducted to test the concept, the implementation, and the values of sliced networks, which all formed the foundation of the specifications of network slicing that have been frozen in 3GPP Release 15.
There are many benefits to network slicing. For the service providers with end-to-end 5G networks, the flexibility of 5G networks will enable the slicing of the networks according to the purposes and technical requirements of different use cases. In turn, such features will optimise the efficiency of network resource utilisation and allocation. This will be particularly significant in an age when energy saving does not only help improve the operators’ cost efficiencies but also has positive impact on the environment.
For the vertical industry customers, the benefits are also obvious. One company’s needs of communication network properties may well be different from the next, therefore signing up to a generic purpose private network does not necessarily satisfy the individual needs. For example, an IoT business would need massive access but not necessarily low latency, an automous car operator’s primary need would be low latency but not necessarily high throughput, while a live streaming service would demand high throughput and high reliability.
When it comes to end consumers, the guaranteed low latency level or bandwidth may not make much sense, but the user experience will be much improved, for example HD live video streaming, or connected virtual reality games. The improved experience provides the vertical industries, for example video streaming services or gaming platforms, with an opportunity to upsell to the consumers. This 5G value chain then completes the B2B2C business model.
However, despite that both the supply side, the 5G service providers and technology suppliers, and the demand side, the vertical industry as well as governmental and non-governmental institutions, would find network slicing desired, there has not been much discussion on how to make this happen in a customer friendly, easy to use way. It is almost assumed that service providers will slice the networks for the customers based on the latter’s demands. In real life, things can be more complex.
To start with, as in any other business, it is ultimately the customers who will decide what to buy, so they should play a similar role in the network slicing transaction. More specifically, on the ascent of mobile telecom from 1G to 4G, service providers have been better at serving consumers with voice and data connectivity, than they are at serving differentiated vertical industry customers. Therefore, slicing networks for different customers may be a tall order for telecom operators, at least at the beginning of 5G. A network slicing wholesale solution is therefore developed to serve this purpose. Such a solution named Slice Store is similar to an online marketplace where buyers can select their products based on their specific parameter requirements, in this case bandwidth, latency, availability, and geographic area.
In a typical transaction, the mobile operators will provide the customers with options that meet different service-level agreement (SLA) requirements on the four dimensions. Customers can then choose, customise, combine, and then pay. Here are a few examples of different use cases:
A massive IoT monitoring operator can choose wide area coverage with a large enough guaranteed access to handle the number of sensors installed in the area. On the other hand, it may choose the bandwidth level depending on the size of data packets the sensors send to the centre, often not very big. It may not need low latency either. Most of the 5G marketing messages have highlighted low latency the technology promises, some even stress the 1ms latency level as a magic number, an ultimate target the industry should aim to hit. However, if the data sent from the sensors is not time critical, there is no reason why clients should spend on low latency. For example, measuring the level of water in the reservoir once a day will be enough in most time of the year, or monitoring the air quality once every couple of hours will deliver reliable data on most days.
The requirements would be quite different for an automatic manufacturing facility, which will need over 100Mbps-level bandwidth, “five-nine” availability, below 10ms latency, but limited geographical coverage, so long as the network slice covers the facility.
In these cases, the customers can subscribe to the service on an ongoing basis. There are also cases well a slice of network can be bought on one-off basis. A typical scenario will be the live streaming of an event. In order for the audience not sitting in the event venue, for example a stadium or a concert hall, to enjoy immersive experience instead of watching the event on a two-dimensional television screen as is the case now, the streaming needs to be carried over networks with very high, Gbps-level bandwidth, “five-nine” availability to provide smooth play, and reasonable latency. However, the slice can be bought for only as long as the event lasts.
The different vertical industry use cases will also provide the service providers with the opportunities to price the services differently, and customers can choose to be billed by time, by the volume of data traffic, or by the number of connections. With the transparency of the network slicing wholesale solution, the vertical industry customers can monitor the network KPIs in real time, and make adjustments whenever needed. The network slice is then easily integrated into and support the vertical industry’s own business processes, therefore delivering the end-to-end service experience assurance.
It is also important to note that the wholesale solution is designed with the evolutionary capability, and telecom operators’ role is not only limited to connectivity provision. Thanks to the network’s full compliance with standards, customers will be able to participate in the design of the networks, and SLAs can be updated when they get more experience using the slices of 5G networks. Meanwhile, when telecom operators become more experienced with serving the industry customers, their AI systems will be able to analyse the data and proactively suggest network slice configurations based on the customers’ use cases, making the process interactive.
ZTE, the designer of the network slicing wholesale (Slice Store) solution and one of the leading 5G technology suppliers, has tested the model with a number of operators. The results are promising, and ZTE’s innovation has been properly recognised with the Leading Contribution to Network Slicing Award at the recent 5G World Summit in London.
— Jason Tu, Principal Scientist of NFV & SDN Products, ZTE Corporation
This content is sponsored by ZTE.