5G will not only deliver more data at higher speeds to mobile customers but also provide the Digital Society with innovative value-added applications and services. To fulfil its promise of delivering these exciting innovations, the wireless industry will need to create a flexible, multipurpose, robust and scalable digital platform that delivers new applications to a wide variety of use cases. In this quest, network providers are turning to network slicing and TNO has contributed to the first 5G slicing standards and developed the first prototypes of this technology.
The present digital transformation of society and businesses is powered by mobile communication. New mobile services are introduced for consumers and companies. The most common examples are telemedicine, automated agriculture, factories of the future, autonomous driving and augmented reality/virtual reality. Network operators are gearing up to provide entire sectors with modern applications on their 5G networks from 2020 onwards.
Behind the scenes, however, there are still technical and commercial challenges to be resolved. The common denominator for new 5G services is obviously connectivity. But the characteristics and delivery requirements for different services in various sectors vary substantially. For example, fully autonomous self-driving cars require ultra-low latency and ultra-high reliability whereas advanced video streaming applications require high data speeds. Providing different applications or market segments with their desired service levels is a major challenge for operators. In response to this challenge, the cellular network industry is working overtime on the development of network slicing.
slices can be created by assembling required network functions to form logical or virtual networks (software) on top of a common physical network infrastructure (hardware). This enables a mobile network operator to segment its network dedicated to individual businesses, specific market segments or specific services. A particular slice within a network can differ from other slices within that network based on latency, bandwidth, reliability, security or functionality provided. Because slices are isolated from each other, a slice appears as a completely unique network from a user perspective. Using network function virtualisation and software defined networking technologies, network slices may be created and dismantled in a flexible manner and can even be controlled by third parties through application programmable interfaces (APIs).
“Slicing is crucial for delivering the variety of use cases promised by 5G”
As an analogy to slicing consider a two-lane highway. Networks without slicing adopt a “one size fits all” approach in which fast-moving cars and slow-moving trucks use both lanes. With 5G slicing, the fast-moving cars and slow-moving trucks each gets a dedicated lane. Each of these “dedicated lanes” is analogous to a slice in 5G, which uses a “fully customised” approach. Furthermore the lanes may be flexibly created and dismantled depending on the types of vehicles in the highway, analogous to network function virtualisation and software defined networking functionalities.
Relevance of slicing
New mobile services can be brought to market far more rapidly because slicing enables providers to customize their 5G networks to address specific applications. They can also quickly and easily adapt services to changing requirements and future demands of customers in different industries. “Mobile networks are very expensive to build and operate, ” says senior telecom consultant Adrian Pais from TNO. “Due to intense competition in the mobile industry, operator margins from the consumer market are declining. Therefore operators are looking to create new opportunities in vertical industries. It is not financially feasible to build a physical mobile network for each and every customer or sector. Network slicing is the answer to a viable business case for operators as it provides the flexibility to cater for several different customers, sectors and applications all within the same infrastructure. It is also the enabler for new business models in various industry sectors.”
Emergency services are a great example of how slicing can be applied. In case of an incident, emergency services can place significant demands on mobile networks and the priority is extremely high. “A solution is to create an ‘emergency slice’,” explains Pais. “The network will be so advanced that it will automatically set up a slice for emergency services. An emergency may be detected by the network using data analytics, for example there may be an unusual peak in traffic in a certain area or IoT data from vehicles may indicate that an accident has happened. The network then sets up an emergency slice in a specific area with dedicated capacity and the required security for the needed timeframe.”
“A slice is like a virtual dedicated network for a particular service, sector, or business”
TNO plays a leading role in the development of network slicing through its contributions to 5G industry standards and the implementation of slicing in its 5G testbed facility known as Hi5. This facility is available throughout the Netherlands including in 5Groningen, an initiative set up by the Economic Board of Groningen and major wireless industry players to deliver the country’s first 5G pilots and trials. “5Groningen is the only rural 5G testbed in Europe and it creates new, unique and important use cases for remote areas,” says Pais, TNO’s 5Groningen programme manager. “Due to its strong 5G expertise and independence, TNO is in the position to provide technical leadership in 5Groningen. Recently we reached a huge breakthrough by demonstrating how to build a live 5G network in only five minutes using general purpose hardware and a software-based cloud infrastructure. A few years ago this was completely unthinkable.”
Interest from market players
In Pais’ view, slicing is no hype; there is genuine interest from operators, businesses and other organisations. As often however, networking innovations depend on standards that ensure interoperability between the equipment supplied by different vendors. “The industry reached a major milestone earlier this year by completing the first 5G standards” says Pais. “Consensus is that support for slicing is a crucial part of these standards, and I expect that slicing will be an important part of commercial 5G networks within the next five years.”
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Collaborating with TNO
Do you have a challenging use case or application in your sector that would benefit from 5G? TNO can help you to make it a reality. You could even test your application in TNO’s state-of-the-art 5G network!