LONDON -- Connected Britain -- Sliced bread has been a revelation for people who can't use a breadknife without producing a doorstop, but sliced networks are not taking off in the same way.
Long touted as one of the most exciting and innovative aspects of 5G, network slicing has taken a bit of a pummeling in recent weeks as operators start to haul their new 5G networks out of the workshop.
One of the chief roadblocks is that standards have still not been finalized, and so products are not ready. "There is a lot of heavy lifting -- everyone is talking to vendors to get ready and there are some capabilities in Release 16 that make it more scalable from a security point of view," said Scott Petty, the chief technology officer of Vodafone UK, during a panel discussion at today's Connected Britain event in London. "Private LTE trials have relied on network slicing, but it is a couple of years away from broad availability and maturity and vendor products."
Release 16 refers to the next phase of 5G -- the 3GPP specifications that will tick a lot of the boxes left empty as operators plunged headfirst into "New Radio" and more mobile broadband. Trouble is, those specifications aren't due to be finalized until March 2020, and there is a risk of slippage. The deadline has already been delayed once amid reports of the heavy workload for 3GPP groups, and there are some jitters that a trade war between the US and China could derail standardization activities. Huawei, one of the main 3GPP contributors, is also the main Chinese target of US hostility.
Even assuming no further delays, decent products -- as Petty indicates -- are unlikely to become widely available until mid-2021.
In the meantime, the industry needs to figure out if enterprise customers really want network slicing, and if regulators will allow it. Neither is a certainty.
Demand is in some doubt following moves by some regulatory authorities to reserve spectrum for use by other industries. Germany left 100MHz of mid-band airwaves out of its recent auction for this purpose, upsetting operators in the process. The UK last week unveiled proposals to award spectrum in the 3.8-4.2GHz range to anyone who wants to build a local 5G network and thinks traditional operators aren't moving "fast enough," in the words of Mansoor Hanif, the chief technology officer of regulatory authority Ofcom. Japan and the Netherlands have similar plans, says Gabriel Brown, a principal analyst with Heavy Reading.
The prospect of a factory owner building and operating its own 5G network raises questions about the need for network slicing, according to Steve Bell, another Heavy Reading analyst.
"Where does network slicing play in this?" said Bell during a recent interview with Light Reading. "Mobile network operators are talking about slices into the enterprise, but if the enterprises can have their own networks then why are they taking slices?"
Nokia CEO Rajeev Suri identifies the same issue. "If enterprises want control they will say I will build my own private network and I want control of the spectrum," he tells Light Reading. "Others say they will do it with network slicing from the operators."
Of course, it is likely that relatively few businesses around the world acquire spectrum and build their own private networks. In cases where an enterprise would use network slicing, the question is whether regulators will allow it. Net neutrality, the ill-defined notion that all Internet traffic should be treated equally, is a potential obstacle to slicing, according to Arun Bansal, the head of Europe and Latin America for Ericsson.
"If net neutrality is applied, the whole premise of network slicing will fall apart," he said on the same panel session that featured Vodafone's Petty. "There has to be some sense from a regulatory point of view."
Just don't expect to see sliced networks baked and served up to hungry customers anytime soon.
- HR's Steve Bell on 5G private networks
- UK May Get 'Thousands' of 5G New Entrants Under Proposed Shake-Up by Ofcom
- Germany raids telcos for €6.5B in epic 5G auction
- Ericsson not a fan of German spectrum plan
- Ericsson CEO: Net Neutrality Threatens 5G
— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading