Still Much Easier to Slice Bread Than 5G Networks

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.

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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.

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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading

[email protected] 6/19/2019 | 9:21:35 AM
Re: Patience, grasshopper THis is all about 5G expectations, which have been over-egged in recent years... there are not many in the telecoms/mobile industry that expected 5G slicing in 2019 (or even 2020) but 5G has been pitched so wildly as 'The G-spot for industrial verticals' (I just made that up but you know what I mean...) that governments and large enterprises are expecting to have their digital strategies bullet-proofed and fired up by new offerings such as slicing as soon as 5G hits the market...

Iain's article is a reminder that some sort of backlash can be expected when the 5G service marketing starts (which is now, in an increasing number of markets) and all users can get is the chance to shell out on another device and test the mobile broadband speed to see if it's any faster... 
Duh! 6/18/2019 | 3:33:43 PM
Patience, grasshopper The timing really shouldn't be a surprise, at least for anybody who's been in the industry for any length of time. This is non-trivial stuff, requires new standards, and requires a lot of software development and testing. Unfortunately, the folks who knew this a couple of years ago aren't the ones who get to talk to the press. Like everything else, slicing (and for that matter, everything in the 5G Universe) is going to follow the Gartner Hype Curve. It never ceases to amaze -- but not surprise -- me that the marketing folks can lean so far in front of their skis and still get away with it time after time.

Note on Net Neutraility: obviously, if one took a fundamentalist view, slicing might be a problem unless all slices were proportionately equal. This is based on a pretty extreme definition of Net Neutrality. In the US, the 2017 Rules would appear* not to prohibit it, since they only apply to "Basic Internet Access Service", and don't prohibit sharing between BIAS and other services. We'll see what happens with that in the next few weeks. I can't comment on other countries/regions.

On the other hand, slicing would potentially be useful for open access networks. Arguably, competition reduces the need for network neutrality-type regulation (among other messes that slicing might clean up if it reaches fruition).

-- Dan Grossman

*Disclaimer: IANAL

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