'Placing unnecessary restrictions on this technology could stifle it in its infancy,' Verizon wrote of network slicing, in a widening debate involving the FCC's net neutrality proceeding and new wireless technologies.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies

March 8, 2024

5 Min Read
Washington Monument during spring
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Network slicing arose as a major topic at this year's big MWC Barcelona confab. Companies ranging from Ericsson to Telefonica to Nokia promised to create slices of their network that sport "enhanced performance characteristics."

However, many of those same companies are warning that a renewed push toward net neutrality in the US could stymie such innovations.

"Slicing will be critical to enabling enterprise cases and providing network solutions for many use cases for which a stand-alone purpose-built network is not feasible," Nokia wrote of a February meeting between CEO Pekka Lundmark and a variety of top FCC officials, including FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel.

"Nokia further noted that slicing can be implemented entirely consistent with core principles of network neutrality," the company added.

The issue has sparked a blooming debate among wireless companies, consumer advocates and others over whether new net neutrality guidelines in the US would squash the market for network slicing.

"Network slicing is a promising technology that will help drive exciting network innovation and enable new capabilities and services for the benefit of consumers in ways that previously were only possible over wireline networks," Verizon told the FCC earlier this month. "Placing unnecessary restrictions on this technology could stifle it in its infancy, to the detriment of consumers and our nation's leadership position in the mobile economy."

Around and around

T-Mobile kicked off the debate late last year by warning that network slicing "is a prime example of a cutting-edge technology that could be negatively affected by regulatory uncertainty." The company further clarified its concerns in a meeting with FCC staff just before the start of the MWC Barcelona trade show last month.

Not surprisingly, the topic of network slicing was widely discussed at the annual event, with companies across the global wireless industry touting slicing as one of the few new 5G technologies that might boost sagging operator revenues.

"This solves a critical piece in the puzzle to deploying 5G slicing to enterprise customers across different industries, ensuring transparency and accountability around specific speeds and uptime as part of the network slice," explained Shailin Sehgal, a top executive with Australian operator Telstra, in a release.

Australian construction company Hindmarsh said it tested Telstra's new network slicing product, built with technology from Ericsson and Casa Systems. "To date the reliability of the new link has been tremendous, access to our business-critical systems is incredibly fast, not to mention video conferencing and internet access, making it faster and easier to work productively on site," Hindmarsh's Mark Crameri said in a release.

Others promised similar offerings. For example, Nokia announced slicing services with e& UAE in the United Arab Emirates, while Ericsson teased similar services with Telefónica in Spain.

"It will enable subscribers to, for example, access exclusive interactive content during a live concert or subscribe to premium experiences during specific events that involve the use of a network slice," explained Ericsson's Mats Karlsson, in a release with Telefonica.

"It seems to be either the age-old idea of some sort of 'turbo button' or other on-demand premium subscription, perhaps for venue-specific content," summarized analyst Dean Bubley, of Disruptive Analysis, in a brief social media post on slicing

It's that kind of "turbo button" concept that could put network slicing on a collision course with the FCC's renewed push toward net neutrality, which is intended to prevent network operators from favoring some traffic over other types of traffic. The FCC initially voted to enact its net neutrality guidelines during the Obama administration. But those rules were overturned during the Trump administration under FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. After Biden replaced Trump and gained Democratic control of the FCC, the agency proposed a new set of net neutrality rules. Thus, it's likely that, if Trump wins a second term, he would overturn them again.

The debate

But some disagree that the FCC needs to make a special carveout for network slicing. For example, consumer interest association Public Knowledge wrote to the FCC that "an ISP cannot favor a particular service by relabelling it a 'specialized' ... service. Newer technologies like 'network slicing' do not change this – an evasion of the commission's rules is an evasion of the commission's rules, regardless of the technology used."

And Michael Calabrese, representing the liberal think tank Open Technology Institute at New America, discussed the topic at length in a January meeting with Rosenworcel and other FCC officials. He warned that T-Mobile's network slicing proposal could put all mobile "broadband Internet access services" (BIAS) on a slope sliding away from net neutrality.

"T-Mobile's proposal is a recipe for exempting mobile BIAS from the brightline prohibition against paid prioritization," he wrote. "If the specialized service shares capacity with the mobile carrier's BIAS network, a general exemption for network 'slices' creates a strong monetary incentive for carriers to sell a guarantee of priority treatment – the equivalent of a HOV lane on the BIAS network – to more and more mostly deep-pocketed edge providers. This would create a vicious cycle as, for example, one video conferencing service after another feels pressured to buy priority treatment to remain competitive."

He argued that network slices must use "some form of network management to isolate the capacity used by these services from that used by the broadband internet access service."

About the Author(s)

Mike Dano

Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading

Mike Dano is Light Reading's Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies. Mike can be reached at [email protected], @mikeddano or on LinkedIn.

Based in Denver, Mike has covered the wireless industry as a journalist for almost two decades, first at RCR Wireless News and then at FierceWireless and recalls once writing a story about the transition from black and white to color screens on cell phones.

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