Network Slicing is understood to be a technology framework where one physical network can be divided into multiple logical networks. As a rather wide definition, there are of course, many ways to do this: We can dedicate a network function or group of functions like DECOR in use cases designed for an individual user; we can have dedicated transmission lines; we can even take the resources dedicated to frequencies like Band 14 in the USA for public safety.
While in the 5G era we will see many Network Slicing functions becoming automated, it is generally understood that Network Slicing can be done today in a 4G network, Though there’s still some debate with the WiFi camp as to what Network Slicing really means, I am sure that soon we’ll agree that as a virtualizable air interface, WIFI provides a perfect application for Network Slicing. With this in play. the technical side gets resolved, but the business model remains elusive.
Network Slicing; The Billion Dollar Business Without a Business Case
As it stands, and after years of debate and architecting, we have but one clear reference use case for Network Slicing; Public Safety. FirstNet, AT&T’s international standard-leading public safety network, has done exceptional work to define and deliver what First Responders and their Critical Communications Agencies need in an age of heightened risk and vulnerability to deadly incidents, whether Man or Mother Nature made. No surprise then that AT&T arch rival Verizon has decided to go the same way, and launch its own First Net. Although the idea of building two unique public safety networks directly contradicts the economic case for retiring “public” public safety networks that don’t scale and quickly become antiquated, it is good for the mission to have private concerns competing for the hearts, minds and wallets of public safety organizations.
With strong evidence that building yet another public safety network makes little to no sense, we see many countries following suit including Britain, Canada and of course, here in Finland. But Network Slicing’s fate cannot hinge on Public Safety alone.
Enter Fixed Wireless
In this emerging use case, steadily gaining traction in major markets around the world, carriers are seeing the many-faced opportunity of providing a “fibre over the air” type experience, designed to adapt to situations where the environment is constantly changing. Here, when referring to the “environment”, we mean not only aberrant weather, but also the fluctuating load upon the network. Delivering a consistent, and even SLA-assured experience that can take into account a variety of possible points of failure, moves us quite far beyond the current Best Effort paradigm that simply can’t do this at scale.
Although very different in terms of technological implementation and business modelling, the common nominator between Fixed Wireless Access and Public Safety is that both of them are mobile operator products. In both cases, customers are asking for a more dynamic approach to serving connectivity. One of the problems making the case for Network Slicing generally, and use cases like these specifically, has been that in most places (except rural communities) the Best Effort customer experience has been largely good enough; for now anyway. But is this model scalable? What if we need to better serve drones or e-gamers? The answer is it doesn’t, and these demands are coming.
As we have long argued in these pages, to make the business case for Network Slicing mobile operators need to build it from the SLA out, providing highly individualized, application-specific services that they can charge a premium for over and above their regular SIM-based service. There’s no question that the idea of an “all things to all men and women” SIM card is rapidly becoming an anachronism. If only for the objective of moving the carrier business out of flat to negative territory, Network Slicing has at least a 30% growth opportunity. But to hit this kind of game-changing growth out of the park, mobile operators need get much closer to their customers in multiple segments and subsegments, to begin to understand what SLA-based services they would be willing to pay for.
Some of the questions operators might ask their customers could be: What aspects of your business are truly business critical? How do various categories of mission-critical connectivity vary in terms of requirements vis a vis, uplink, downlink, delay and throughput? Which ones are the most delay sensitive? How about jitter? Does the weather make a difference in your experience? Is there a need (e.g. in the case of broadcasting) to reserve capacity in advance? And so forth.
It may seem a practical impossibility to know all your possible customers with this degree of granular detail, but it’s true to say that many other industries, say Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) and e-commerce companies already do. And it is precisely here that we arrive at the next and most important development in Network Slicing, namely the API. The API for Network Slicing is more than simply a network systems handshake, but in a very real way can become the Rosetta Stone for the supreme challenge of understanding and responding to demand. As a case in point, we see that big three infrastructure player and original coiner of the term, Ericsson recently publishing a research paper arguing that carriers should leverage the API to allow Network Slices to be ordered from outside of the network. Sound familiar? Yes, it’s been precisely the case we have laid out for some time here, but most importantly, it is beginning to take root, and it is most compelling. The idea that any mobile operator, or virtual mobile operator (with their MNOs alignment) can open themselves up to the existing demand of a multiplicity of potential customers without the heavy lifting on the marketing and development side. You don’t need to develop a service for eHealthcare or Autonomous Vehicles or Video Conferencing, but rather simply publish a standardized API that applications can use to communicate with the network as required.