Slice up the 5G network and customers will bite more hungrily. That was always the hope, anyway. If they could carve out different service layers on the same underlying infrastructure, operators would be able to guarantee specific features for individual customers – a low-latency service for robotics, say, or a superfast one for video-based communications. A new slicing offer from Ericsson will put the theory to the test.
The Swedish vendor has just added a new RAN slicing product to its line-up of 5G goodies. It is broadly intended for operators catering to the enterprise sector of the market, where customers may have exacting requirements and a need for service level agreements (SLAs). Hannes Ekström, the head of 5G RAN at Ericsson, is confident it will fuel business interest in 5G technology.
"Once you define SLAs and enforce them, I think more enterprises will be able to consider mobile networks for use cases," he tells Light Reading. "The key for me is the ability to define and enforce and agree on the SLAs. That will spur innovation and more sophisticated use cases."
The product launch is important because slicing so far has been more viable in the core network, says Gabriel Brown, a principal analyst at Heavy Reading. To be effective, it needs to be implemented "end to end," across all the different network domains. Still, Ekström concedes that his rivals are developing and marketing similar RAN slicing products. So what distinguishes Ericsson's?
Where Ekström claims a particular advantage is in Ericsson's approach to the allocation of radio resources. Harnessing some of the same expertise it used to develop its spectrum-sharing products, Ericsson has been able to allocate resources on a one-millisecond basis, says Ekström. This quick "scheduling" means a better experience for end users and lower costs for Ericsson's customers, thanks to greater spectral efficiency. "We do not see that being a standard solution," says Ekström.
In principle, there is no limit to the number of slices an operator could support, which means a slice could be tailored for a single business customer. The challenge in this domain, says Heavy Reading's Brown, is to allocate resources to a user in a slice without affecting the overall cell efficiency for other users.
But Ekström is confident that Ericsson's ability to partition radio resources in real time will address this issue. "It is a way to take out a portion of cell capacity and treat it as a logical, separate entity," he says. "From a resource perspective, the load on the network from a given slice can vary from one millisecond to the next."
The focus on the enterprise sector is unsurprising. IT departments are already used to speaking the language of SLAs and are more likely than mainstream consumers to value 5G as a guarantor of quality rather than just a high-speed connectivity lane. The GSM Association, an industry body, reckons the addressable opportunity in this market will be worth as much as $300 billion by 2025.
Nevertheless, Ekström insists network slicing has relevance for the mass market, too. Cloud gaming is one consumer service that could really benefit from slicing, he says. "Once networks get these capabilities, it will drive fast development on the consumer electronics side," he predicts. Ericsson estimates the consumer market for slicing will be worth $712 billion by 2030.
The RAN slicing product is commercially available now, although Ekström will not say anything about telco interest. Japan's KDDI and Swisscom have effectively identified themselves as customers, however, by endorsing the latest offer in Ericsson's press release. Other service providers, meanwhile, have been involved in field trials and proofs of concept, says Ekström, including SKT, BT, AT&T, Telefónica, Deutsche Telekom and Vodafone. "There are a number of engagements today."
The launch does not affect Ericsson's strategy of targeting the enterprise sector only in partnership with operators, which means the Swedish firm will not be selling RAN slicing directly to any non-telco businesses. "Go to market is very much through the communications service provider," says Ekström. "That does not change through this launch."
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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading