Let’s talk pizza! Suppose a mixed group of eight people go to a pizza shop. They order a large pizza, but everyone wants something different on their slice. Everybody pays the shop owner directly for their special slice which is served to each person sitting at their own table (social distancing!).
On the next Zoom call, the group again orders pizza from the same shop only this time everyone pays a different third-party service to have their special slice delivered to their specific location.
With 5G, mobile network operators similarly can partition their networks in software to serve distinct use cases and applications in specific locations. Pizza is a rough analogy for sure, but you get the idea.
Certainly, MNOs are building their 5G networks for coverage and capacity. Unlike earlier generations of wireless systems, however, 5G networks will serve a wide range of use cases with distinct requirements for power, bandwidth, and speed while providing connections to a common network infrastructure platform.
Technically speaking, 5G network slicing is a network architecture that enables the multiplexing of virtualized and independent logical networks on the same physical network infrastructure. Network slicing is a type of virtual networking architecture like software-defined networking (SDN) and network function virtualization (NFV).
With virtual networking, 5G physical connections can be divided into multiple virtual connections that are all different.
5G network slicing allows MNOs to tailor portions of their network to vertical markets and specific use cases. This could include everything from smart homes and businesses that utilize enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB), to autonomous vehicles, public safety, the smart energy grid, and other critical communications that need reliable low latency (URLLC), to factory automation and warehousing that are enabled by massive machine type communications (mMTC) and massive Internet of Things.
Each use case requires a unique mix of network infrastructure resources including RAN, transport, core, mobile edge computing and a network slice controller. When properly engineered for the application, these network resources can meet specified service levels for connection speed, data throughput capacity and latency. (see, How Low Latency Changes Wireless Network Designs)
The key here is that each network slice appears to the customer as a private end-to-end network tailored to their specific requirements.
From a business perspective, like the pizza analogy, network slice transactions can be handled several ways. The MNO may deliver portions of its own network directly to certain high value applications such as airports, ports, or stadiums.
In other instances, a mobile virtual network operator may lease network resources from the MNO to serve specific vertical markets such as business parks or educational campuses. At the same time, neutral host operators may contract with the MNO for spectrum and RF resources for large in-building wireless applications such as hospitals or hotels.
The MNO still owns and operates the underlying network infrastructure but leases virtual network slices to third parties to manage for their end users. Depending on assigned network resources, a MVNO or neutral host independently can deploy multiple network slices for various custom applications.
5G network slicing can reduce both capital expenditures and operating expenses since the MNO only needs to deploy sufficient network infrastructure to support wireless devices and user equipment in each set of use cases.
The Ericsson Mobility Report (Nov 2020) projects 3.5 billion 5G connections of all types worldwide by 2026. Network slicing is essential for MNOs and third-party service providers to meet that demand by adapting their networks to the specific needs of highly differentiated user groups.
By John Celentano, Inside Towers Business Editor