The operator has carried out network slicing trials with Ericsson but says rules changes are needed before new services can be offered.

Iain Morris, International Editor

March 15, 2022

7 Min Read
Vodafone UK proposes net neutrality fix for network slicing

As any half-decent Fortnite gamer will tell you, latency can suck. The microsecond lags that occur on any data network could be the difference between gaming glory and a fatal gunshot to your character's head. But what if gamers could pay a bit more than the average telecom subscriber for a latency guarantee?

It is an idea that clearly excites Andrea Dona, the chief network officer of Vodafone UK, and forthcoming technology could make it a reality on 5G. Today's customers are making do with a fast-ageing version of the mobile standard called non-standalone, which hitches the 5G new radio technology to the old 4G core (the brain of the network). Users enjoy equal treatment on a more advanced network, but differentiation is tricky.

Figure 1: Network slicing may be needed for the sort of VR apps seen at MWC. (Photo by Iain Morris) Network slicing may be needed for the sort of VR apps seen at MWC.
(Photo by Iain Morris)

That could all change with standalone. Yet to be rolled out by UK operators, it introduces a new 5G core that supports a feature called "network slicing." By taking advantage of it, Vodafone could offer a range of differentiated services on the same underlying 5G infrastructure – a high-speed service for quick video downloads, say, or a low-latency one for gaming.

Network slicing has been all talk and little action for several years, but the much-ballyhooed feature has now been given a trial workout by Vodafone and Ericsson, the Swedish supplier of Vodafone's 5G core and most of its radio access network. In what they are claiming as a first, the two companies carved out a 260Mbit/s service with latency of just 12.4 milliseconds, low enough to support a virtual-reality application. The entire process – from ordering a slice through to the delivery of a service – took about 30 minutes during the lab trial.

Hold on

But Fortnite gamers should wait before they begin stocking up on ammunition. For all the telco interest, network slicing will not be doable commercially without an overhaul of UK rules on net neutrality, says Dona. "It would have to change, it is as simple as that," he said during a press conference this week. "Because there isn't real clarity, we are implicitly a bit more conservative and that is not great for pushing the envelope on innovation and business models. We want clarity."

Net neutrality is the somewhat ill-defined principle that all Internet traffic be treated equally by telecom operators. Enshrined in European Union laws, and a regular battleground between Democrats and Republicans in the US, it is supposed to prevent operators from charging Internet companies (rather than just the end users) as well as giving preferential treatment to certain services. For that reason, network slicing could fall foul of the rules.

Key Performance metric

Virtual reality network slice (controlled environment)

Public Internet

Download speed (Mbit/s)

260

49.41

Upload speed (Mbit/s)

16.5

8.17

Latency (milliseconds)

12.4

35

Jitter (milliseconds)

1.22

N/A

(Source: Vodafone)

The potentially good news for Vodafone and other UK operators is the launch of a consultation by Ofcom, the UK telecom regulator, following Brexit. "We really welcome Ofcom's latest request for input, and they seem to acknowledge the need for a shift," said Dona.

Rather than calling for the complete abandonment of net neutrality, Vodafone has put forward a concept it calls "zones" as a possible workaround. Under this, Dona explains, each category of devices would have its own set of rules. "There would be a level playing field within a particular set of devices, but you cannot compare apples with oranges, or it will create a barrier to commercializing things like this."

Dona is not the only executive calling for change. UK incumbent BT has also been publicly outspoken on the topic, arguing that new spikes in Internet traffic are driving up network costs.

In a blog published in December, BT Consumer CEO Marc Allera wrote: "The net is not neutral and becomes less so yearly; a quick glance at our own network data suggests that at peak times up to 80% of traffic – and therefore capacity on our network – comes from just a handful of companies, some using models that can find and consume every last bit of space."

Nor is the wrangling confined to the UK. The CEOs of Europe's biggest operators, including Vodafone, last month wrote an open letter demanding a change to EU legislation. "The current situation is simply not sustainable," they said. "The investment burden must be shared in a more proportionate way."

Want to know more about 5G? Check out our dedicated 5G content channel here on Light Reading.

An emerging concern is the metaverse – a concept recently popularized by Facebook – and the network investment that may be needed to support it. "If we start to deploy many sites, it will have a cost and we need to find a way to monetize that," said Laurent Leboucher, the group chief technology officer of France's Orange. "It cannot just be the operators bearing the cost for free for metaverse providers.

Customers have already paid to use services, critics often retort, and demanding extra payment from Internet providers would be a form of double charging. Others point out that Internet companies also make substantial investments in Internet infrastructure and could just as easily demand that operators stump up for some of that expense.

But charging customers for service guarantees may be less controversial. Vodafone hopes that it could also be done on a more ad hoc basis. A customer needing a bandwidth boost for a single afternoon, for instance, would be able to order it on a Vodafone website through a few clicks and pay accordingly – much as consumers order online services from Amazon.

Standalone uncertainty

Net neutrality legislation is the not the only concern, however. The current unavailability of commercial standalone 5G networks means network slicing is currently theoretical, and evolving today's non-standalone networks to the latest technology will be tricky, according to Dona.

"We need to ensure all features are being tested and carefully manage the rollout from a RAN [radio access network] perspective in clusters," he said. While standalone should not require investment in new hardware, the software effort is considerable, he tells Light Reading.

Vodafone is not yet publicizing a date for when standalone services will be commercially available. One challenge Dona identifies in conversation with Light Reading is related to spectrum. At first, standalone will come with fewer options than non-standalone for carrier aggregation, whereby different spectrum bands are combined to boost performance.

Meanwhile, the concern flagged by some industry analysts is that 5G standalone investments will be wasted. Several of the use cases identified could realistically be handled by high-speed fixed-line technologies, especially when the end customer is likely to be seated indoors. And that probably includes your bedroom-bound teenage gamer.

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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading

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About the Author(s)

Iain Morris

International Editor, Light Reading

Iain Morris joined Light Reading as News Editor at the start of 2015 -- and we mean, right at the start. His friends and family were still singing Auld Lang Syne as Iain started sourcing New Year's Eve UK mobile network congestion statistics. Prior to boosting Light Reading's UK-based editorial team numbers (he is based in London, south of the river), Iain was a successful freelance writer and editor who had been covering the telecoms sector for the past 15 years. His work has appeared in publications including The Economist (classy!) and The Observer, besides a variety of trade and business journals. He was previously the lead telecoms analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, and before that worked as a features editor at Telecommunications magazine. Iain started out in telecoms as an editor at consulting and market-research company Analysys (now Analysys Mason).

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