Marek’s Take: Network slicing inches closer to reality

Marek's take

Early in the industry’s 5G discussions, many experts (from both vendors and operators) spoke of network slicing as being a key reason for migrating from 4G to 5G. In fact, network slicing was often described as being the breakthrough technology for 5G because it would allow operators to manipulate the network on the fly and provide different virtual slices of the network to different customers. Those customers would benefit from network slicing because they could basically dictate their slice’s functionality, whether it was a certain bandwidth, latency level or specific type of security.

But here we are in the fourth quarter of 2021 and we have yet to see a widespread deployment of network slicing. That’s not because 5G is still in its infancy. According to the Global mobile Suppliers Association (GSA), there are 176 operators in 72 countries that have launched one or more 3GPP-compliant 5G services and hundreds more are investing in 5G network planning and trials.

But many of these 5G networks are using non-standalone 5G (NSA), which relies on the 4G LTE network core. Although network slicing can be done on LTE and NSA, for it to really work well it requires a 5G core, which is what standalone 5G (5G SA) brings to the table. In the U.S., T-Mobile launched its nationwide 5G SA network in August 2020 but has not introduced network slicing yet. Verizon and AT&T say they are still testing 5G SA.

However, outside the U.S. there seems to be greater momentum around network slicing. Telia announced earlier this week that has deployed a commercial 5G standalone network in Finland using gear from Nokia and the operator highlighted its ability to introduce network slicing now that it has a 5G SA core. In addition, Rogers Communications in Canada rolled out its nationwide 5G SA network in October and said that it was an important step toward new features such as network slicing and mobile edge computing.

Android momentum

One big development that is giving network slicing further strength is Google’s Android 12 operating system. The company released Android 12 iOS earlier this month and it supports 5G enterprise network slicing, which means that Android 12 devices can route application traffic on managed devices on 5G networks.

Google’s Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro, which run on Android 12, are the first two devices certified on Rogers 5G SA network.

In addition, Ericsson said it has successfully tested Android 12 devices running on Taiwanese operator Far EasTone’s 5G SA network.

Android 12 iOS includes a dynamic policy control mechanism called User Equipment Route Selection Policy (USRP), which enables devices to switch between different network slices depending upon what application they are using. For example, a worker could use one network slice to send highly sensitive information because that slice has special security, and use another slice that has low-latency to participate in a video call.

According to Ravi Vaidyanathan, head of cloud IT and Technology at Ericsson North America, Android’s support for 5G network slicing is a significant milestone for the industry because it unlocks a set of sophisticated use cases on the handset. And that, in turn, Vaidyanathan, said will stimulate the network slicing ecosystem.

Pehr Claesson, marketing director for network slicing at Ericsson, said that the company is now seeing more movement toward commercial deployments of network slicing and he believes that 2022 will be the year that network slicing becomes more accessible.

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In addition, he believes that the Android 12 development will result in more enterprises being interested in incorporating network slicing into their businesses.

Nokia also had high praise for Android 12 joining the network slicing ecosystem. “Google’s new solution brings opportunities to operators to develop per application slicing services for Android devices starting with enterprise applications,” said Mika Uusitalo, head of new technologies and innovation at Nokia.

And Uusitalo also agrees that 2022 will be a big year for network slicing, noting that Nokia is involved in numerous trials and pilots around the world and is currently working with Orange on an end-to-end network slicing endeavor that is compatible with LTE, 5G NSA and 5G SA devices and is being used to create a private network for Schneider Electric in France.

Network slicing has been in the works for many years, but with standalone 5G networks becoming more prevalent, it’s likely that we’ll start seeing real network slicing deployments in the months ahead. I, for one, am looking forward to seeing this concept finally become a reality.