Network slicing is becoming the unescapable buzzword of the month

Every couple of months a new buzzword emerges, and it starts to emerge in pretty much every conversation. Now its network slicing staking a claim for the title.

Featuring in almost every presentation at the 5G Core conference in Madrid this week, the technology certainly has a lot to live up to. However, like the cloud, virtualisation or digital transformation, it is claiming its 15 minutes of fame, though the promise and potential is very grand.

Although it might not should like the most revolutionary aspect of the quickly evolving telco landscape, it offers so much opportunity to evolve the business and grow revenues. As Franz Seiser of Deutsche Telekom put it, the one-size-fits-all 4G network cannot deliver the fortunes investors have been promised so frequently as the industry wades through this tenuous period.

Network slicing is critical. The idea of creating customisable networks and specific products for enterprise is only achievable through the implementation of network slicing. Or, it can be achieved through more traditional means of network deployment, but this would not be commercially attractive. Soon enough, a slice could be designated for low-latency services in the energy industry, the high-speeds demanded by broadcasting or the resilience and reliability insisted upon in the manufacturing space.

It also adds into the drive towards network convergence.

As Maria Cuevas of BT pointed out during her presentation, network convergence has been attempted in the past, though it has failed. However, baby-steps are being made towards realising the convergence dream, as well as the operational and financial benefits, and network slicing will add further to the momentum.

This is not the only trend which Cuevas is keeping an eye-on, but the ability to designate traffic to specific slices adds notable momentum to the operational side of a converged network.

However, there are still challenges. The next 3GPP standards release in March 2020 should add some much-needed clarity, though many of the questions which telcos are facing today are operational not technical.

Technical challenges are not a problem realistically, according to Telecom Italia (TIM) SVP Lucy Lombardi; a solution will always emerge. The issues which are currently being dealt are much more business focused. Does TIM want slices to be fixed or dynamic? Who will control the functionality of the slice, TIM or the customer? Will roaming be a slice? What kind of industry collaboration does it need?

The technical challenges will gradually dissolve as vendors propose new ideas and telcos present success stories at conference, but the business questions which have been mentioned above are perhaps more challenging. This is where a telco can add value, create differentiation and attract customers.

The 5G networks which are currently being deployed are no-longer driven by the demands of the consumer. The consumer is of course still important, but the 5G network is being designed and deployed to realise the benefits of the enterprise connectivity world. And network slicing is a critical component of this dream.

BBWF 2018: Consumers don’t care about tech, just connectivity – BT

Today’s consumer is demanding but disinterested. They don’t care about mobile or broadband or wifi, just top-line connectivity. To meet these demands, BT has pointed to network convergence.

Speaking at Broadband World Forum, Howard Watson, BT’s CTIO, outlined the bigger picture. It’s all about convergence where the dividing lines between wireless and fixed or hardware and software are blurred, with connectivity is viewed as a single concept, bringing together network design, technology convergence and customer insight to create a single software-orientated network for device neutral connectivity.

“For the consumer, it’s not about their wifi, or their mobile connection, or their fixed broadband, or even their landline,” said Watson. “It’s about connectivity as a whole. And I’m pleased to say we’re already making strong progress here.”

Of course, it wouldn’t be a telco conference without mentioning 5G, and this is a critical component of the BT story. Trials have already begun in East London, though over the next couple of days 10 additional nodes will be added to expand the test. Plans are already underway to launch a converged hardware portfolio, introduce IP voice for customers and create a seamless wifi experience. All of this will be built on a single core network.

But what does this mean for the consumer? Simplicity in the simplest of terms.

The overall objective is to create a seamless connectivity experience which underpins the consumer disinterest in anything but being connected. Soon enough, devices will be able to automatically detect and select the best connectivity option, whether it is wifi or cellular for example, essentially meaning consumers will not have to check anything on their devices. Gone will be the days where you have to worry about your device clinging onto weak wifi signal or being disrupted by a network reaching out to your device, according to Watson. Signing in will become a distant memory as the consumer seamlessly shift from wifi to mobile.

This is of course a grand idea, and there is still a considerable amount of work to be done. Public wifi is pretty woeful as a general rule, and mobile connectivity is patchy in some of the busiest and remotest regions in the UK, but in fairness to BT, it does look like a sensible and well thought out plan.

With telcos becoming increasingly utilitised, these organizations need to start adding value to the lives of the consumer. Connectivity is not enough anymore, as it has become a basic expectation not a luxury in today’s digitally-defined society; providing the seamless experience might just be one way BT can prove its value. Fortunately, with its broadband footprint, EE’s mobile network and 5000 public wifi spots throughout the UK, BT is in a strong position to make the converged network dream a reality.