Is there demand for network slicing?

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In between the excitement of 5G, IoT, MEC, VR/AR, AI, drones, connected cars and the Nokia 3310 comeback at MWC this year, we noticed a creeping upsurge in chatter about 'network slicing', as some pioneering operators (NTT DoCoMo, Deutsche Telekom, SK Telecom) held demonstrations at their stands. We have just published a report titled Network Slicing: The greatest thing since sliced bread? In both this blog and the report, we are investigating a fundamental question that remains unanswered - is there demand for network slicing?

What is network slicing?

Network slicing is essentially the division of an operator's network into multiple virtual networks, which are then able to support different service level requirements, like those related to latency, bandwidth, security and reliability, for different customers.

Network slicing is a concept that is being discussed in parallel to the ever-evolving exploration of 5G by a variety of global telecoms industry players. It has garnered increasing attention recently because, unlike technologies like VPNs and NB-IoT, it allows for the dynamic management of networks. This makes it a highly appealing technology to use to support 5G use cases being explored by telcos today, like connected autos and industrial robotics.

But in an ecosystem where the dialogue around network slicing could be argued to be hyper-inflated, has anyone asked whether there is demand for slicing?

Evidence of the demand for network slicing

Demand can be evidenced on two ends:

  1. Telco-led: Telcos assert that there is a need for network slicing, and support this claim by conducting trials into how network slicing could be practically implemented, suggesting that there is demand for it as they are investing time and money into its development.
  2. Customer-led: Potential customers of network slicing are asking operators for it, explicitly demonstrating a demand.

Telco-led demand in network slicing

Telcos have completed numerous trials and proofs-of-concept of network slicing which highlight different potential use cases, and by extension, signify different sources of demand.

In February 2017, Deutsche Telecom (DT) and SK Telecom trialed making their network slices available on each other's footprint, as part of an initiative to enable inter-continental 5G roaming. At an MWC demonstration DT, SK Telecom and Ericsson applied 5G roaming to a connected car using network slicing to allow it to function, for example by uploading data locally in Germany, when being driven there. This proof of concept suggests that there is demand for networking slicing in services related to roaming and connected autos. This is corroborated by DT's CTO, Bruno Jacobfeuerborn, who stated that "customers are demanding global connectivity with a unified service experience".

DT's stand at MWC displayed several use cases involving network slicing including a medical services robot that could be remotely controlled by a human, and a demonstration where multiple mechanical arms co-operated to complete a goods transfer task. The latter was supported by Huawei's 5G network slicing router, which was also unveiled at MWC. These are examples of the demand for networking slicing in services related to medicine and industrial manufacturing.

Moreover, telcos at MWC highlighted that there are more potential use cases currently being explored by them. These include other connected vehicles like trucks, smart city features like street lights, and drones, which suggests there is demand for network slicing supported services in a variety of industries.

But telco experimentation displays divergence

When speaking to telcos at MWC it became apparent that there is divergence in opinions on network slicing.

Within telcos there is variance between technical experts and marketing specialists. For example, at Intel, the technical expert claimed that exploration into network slicing was based more on discovering its full technological potential internally for telcos, for example by improving efficiency to reduce costs, rather than being demand-driven. In contrast, the marketing specialist was quick to list a variety of industries it could be applied to, which focused on industrial manufacturing, connected autos and drones, implying there was ample demand for it.

There is also divergence between telcos. Where DT CTO, Bruno Jacobfeuerborn, said "network slicing is the most important innovation for 5G", NTT DoCoMo's Senior Vice President and General Manager of R&D Strategy Department, Hiroshi Nakamura, said it "has the potential to deliver diverse cutting-edge 5G services". This difference between network slicing being the most important innovation versus only showing potential suggests that telecoms operators do not universally believe in the idea that network slicing is crucial for 5G.

Customer-led demand for network slicing

Since network slicing has the potential to dynamically guarantee different service levels there are a variety of potential customers. If focusing on bandwidth this could include content streamers like Netflix, or if focusing on security and reliability this could include governments installing smart cities.

However, when speaking to these potential customers at MWC it was evident that they did not understand the technologies behind slicing. These customers often have connectivity-based requirements, like a local government installing smart traffic lights needs high reliability and security, which can be met by network slicing - but they just aren't aware of this yet.

Emphasis on the 'yet'. A passive demand for network slicing exists because it is the most efficient method for meeting the needs of burgeoning services like smart cities, connected cars and industrial robots. Telcos need to approach these potential customers, and explain why network slicing is the best way to meet their varied needs, in order to activate customer led demand for network slicing.

What should telcos do next?

Since exploration of network slicing has developed from experimentation in 5G, rather than due to an explicit demand for it, telcos need to develop and standardise their opinions, applicable use cases, and offerings of it.

Telcos also need to start thinking about network slicing innovation from the perspective of how it can be used to solve customer problems. Then, telcos will be in a position where they can educate customers on the benefits of network slicing for their industry, rather than confusing them with overemphasis on technology. This will help encourage more active demand for network slicing.

It must be noted that most network slicing use cases are concepts which are themselves futuristic. Smart cities and industrial manufacturing need the commercial rollout of 5G to become reality. It is after this that demand for network slicing can begin to boom.

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