What is network slicing?

Everything you wanted to know but were afraid to ask about network slicing in telecoms – including the technology behind it, what it is used for, and who is buying it.

Andrew Wooden

May 31, 2023

10 Min Read
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Everything you wanted to know but were afraid to ask about network slicing in telecoms – including the technology behind it, what it is used for, and who is buying it.

Network slicing is cropping up more and more as a term within telecoms discussions, particularly with reference to the benefits of 5G in certain industrial or business settings. It’s pitched as a way of improving the reliability and performance of connectivity in certain situations where there is congestion or mission critical operations are in play, and as 5G Standalone rolls out it seems likely to increasingly be part of the discussion when it comes to b2b installations.

But before we go into the use cases, potential for monetisation and anything else it might be applied to, let’s first look at what is meant by network slicing on a technical level.

The technology behind network slicing

“Network slicing is a key feature of 5G networks that allows a single physical network to be divided into multiple virtual networks, each tailored to specific requirements,” says Kelvin Chaffer, CEO at Lifecycle Software says. “Each ‘slice’ is an isolated end-to-end network that can be customized for different applications, services, or customers. Network slicing leverages technologies like Software Defined Networking (SDN) and Network Functions Virtualisation (NFV) to dynamically manage and allocate network resources, and orchestration to manage the lifecycle of slices.”

Meanwhile a Vodafone spokesperson points out that network slicing can also be achieved on older network standards, namely 4G: “Network Slicing is a new capability envisioned for 5G Standalone although some applications are being supported by 4G. It enables the partitioning of the network into ‘slices’ adapted to customers’ specific applications. Each slice is a collection of end-to-end network capabilities, from the customer device through to the edge of Vodafone’s core network. For example, a slice may have some reserved capacity or prioritisation on the air interface, prioritisation in the transport network, even dedicated core network resources. It depends on the need of the application or customer.”

Mika Uusitalo, Head of New Technologies and Innovations at Nokia digs into the nuts and bolts a little more: “Network slicing enables CSPs to create virtual, independent networks or ‘slices’ within the same physical network that connect from the devices, across RAN-Transport-Core, through to the application. Each slice can have independent network performance, quality, security, routing capabilities and Key Performance Indicators in-line with customer needs. Network slicing enables new business and revenue opportunities for CSPs by allowing them to use their network assets more flexibly.”

Meanwhile Senior Principal Analyst at Omdia Sameer Malik describes network slicing as a ‘magic wand’ that can enable certain services: “Network slicing is an attractive concept that borne out originally from 5G technology. But it’s now well used as overall network technology features that help operators to virtually divide the shared physical networks in numerous virtual or logical networks for assuring guaranteed end- customer experiences. Technically speaking network slicing starts from users connected to wireless 5G network and then with the help of overall cross-domain network orchestrator integrates with core network through end-to-end underlay IP transport network. It is not wrong to consider slicing in 5G network’s value as a “magic wand” to support stringent latency-sensitive new service demands.”

So, without getting too far into the weeds with regards the underlying technology that makes it possible, we’ve established what network slicing is. But what does it do above and beyond what can be done on a ‘normal’ network?

What does network slicing do?

Big events where many people are trying to connect to networks in a small area, such as a music festival or football match, can cause congestion and effect performance. Network slicing can ensure specific customers or services are ensured access in such situations. “A recent example is the King’s Coronation in the UK,” said Vodafone. “Broadcasters have a very difficult challenge in covering an event, where there are many thousands of people concentrated in small areas. They need to be able to deliver their broadcast coverage swiftly and reliably to their HQ for nationwide distribution. In this case Vodafone worked with ITN to offer them a slice to ensure a minimum uplink speed for their reporters.”

Uusitalo lists some of other potential uses of network slicing: “CSPs can offer new services such as 4G/5G Virtual Private Networks for enterprises in campus, city or wider areas, Fixed Wireless Access slicing services for homes and home offices, as well as network slicing for applications like gaming, streaming and XR with high performance and low latency enabled by edge slicing. CSPs can also target new vertical segments and use cases that may not have been feasible earlier.

“We have had the opportunity to work with CSPs and their customers on real-life slicing use cases and network deployments, including sliced 4G/5G campus and city networks, smart grids, automated railways, mining, ports as well as robotics and AR in factories. Several CSPs have been also trailing FWA slicing for smart homes, home/small offices as well as for private lines.”

Benefits of network slicing

Malik points out that a many of the beneficiaries of network slicing will be in the industrial sector: “It helps service providers to empower their customers especially enterprises and industry verticals in getting guaranteed bandwidth, deterministic experience, and controlled latency for their industrial automation processes. Most of the industrial verticals such as healthcare, financial institutions, logistics, manufacturing etc depend on the telco service providers’ network. They do not bear any shared network resources because of the service sensitivity and latency. Service providers selling their network software based soft and FlexE enabled hard slices by dividing their physical networks into numerous virtual networks for deterministic user experience, larger guaranteed bandwidth etc.”

The ability to customise a network slicing product for different sectors and companies is key, argues Chaffer: “Network slicing allows mobile operators to provide highly customized network services to their business customers, particularly in the B2B segment. This is a significant departure from the one-size-fits-all approach of traditional networks, enabling operators to meet the specific needs of different industries. For instance, in the UK, Vodafone and Ericsson demonstrated a 5G standalone system that included network slicing capabilities, showing how different slices could be used for different applications, such as IoT and low-latency applications. Another example is the AutoAir project, where O2 tested 5G and network slicing in a real-world environment for autonomous vehicles.”

So essentially the specific uses will vary depending on industry and requirements, but a fundamental element is securing a dedicated amount of bandwidth in order to ensure mission critical services do not fail regardless of what is going on with the network.

As you can read about in our breakdown of what 5G is, the network standard was launched initially partially using 4G kit, which meant it wasn’t ‘full’ or ‘proper’ 5G. That comes with 5G standalone, which does not rely on 4G equipment – so how important is that technology to the adoption of network slicing deployments?

5G Standalone and network slicing

Uusitalo acknowledges that while 5G SA isn’t a requirement for network slicing, it could bring enhanced capabilities where it is available: “All technologies, LTE, 5G NSA and 5G SA have key functionalities to enable network slicing today. However, in the future 5G SA will support even more advanced slicing capabilities like ultra-low latency. We have carried out several live network trials with early adopter CSPs in developing and testing new slicing technologies such as LTE/NSA-5G SA slice interworking, dynamic radio resource allocation, edge slicing, dynamic slice selection with URSP as well as slice management automation, E2E orchestration and assurance. Nokia has also collaborated with Google Android team on developing and testing multi-slice capabilities for applications in smart phones and 4G/5G networks for enterprises and consumers.”

However, Senior Principal Analyst Sameer Omdia Guang Yang sees 5G SA as more fundamental to network slicing: “For the network slicing of mobile services, a 5G SA network is a must-have. Operators have to deploy 5G SA and then can provide network slicing services. Other challenges include system interoperability in a multi-vendor environment. An end-to-end network slice requires coordination between the core, transport, and radio access networks. The early experience of Chinese operators indicates that the interoperability and integration in a multi-vendor environment for the E2E slicing are quite challenging and time-consuming.

“On the device side, the collaboration between device vendors, chipset suppliers, operating system providers, network infrastructure vendors, and application developers is required to implement the support for multiple slices on one device and enable dynamic slice selection according to the application’s service quality requirements. Google and Microsoft have conducted tests to support network slicing on Android and Windows devices. But we have not seen any of Apple’s activities enabling iOS or macOS to support multi-slices on one device. In addition, the developers’ education is also important to let more developers know network slicing and can use the feature to improve the experience of their applications.”

Vodafone adds: “True network slicing, with the complete set of end-to-end management capabilities, comes with 5G Standalone. 5G Standalone networks are now beginning to be rolled out in Europe. However, some of the capabilities of slicing can also be enabled on 4G and 5G non-standalone networks. For example, Vodafone is using a 4G slice in Germany to connect a self-driving train in Hamburg to ensure there is always sufficient capacity to communicate mobility data and timetable changes.”

Chaffer notes some of the challenges faced by network slicing, including regulatory issues: “Network slicing is most effectively realized with 5G Standalone (SA) architecture. 5G SA introduces a new 5G core (5GC) that uses a service-based architecture, where network functions are modular and can be invoked through standard APIs. This modularity and flexibility are key to enabling network slicing. However, both network slicing and the rollout of 5G SA face several challenges. These include managing the operational complexity of multiple slices, ensuring robust security and isolation between slices, navigating regulatory issues around fair access to network slices, developing viable business models, and ensuring interoperability between different network slices and with existing networks.”

Who is buying network slicing and how big will the market be?

As you can tell from the commentary so far, this is not the sort of thing consumers are going to be picking up for themselves en mass – so who will the targetable market be made up of and potentially how big is that market?

Malik says: “The main types of firms that are and will be very interested in using network slicing are healthcare, financial sectors (banks, stock exchanges, brokerage houses) and industrial automation such as manufacturing plants, shipping ports, logistics, agriculture etc. The market size is quite big and is also evolving with time. We cannot provide an actual slicing total addressable market size.”

Chaffer on the other hand cites a report claiming the network slicing market will reach $1.2 billion by 2025: “The main types of firms likely to invest in network slicing are those that require specialized network capabilities. This includes telecommunications operators, manufacturing firms, healthcare providers, automotive companies, and media and entertainment companies. As for the market size, it’s expected to grow significantly with the rollout of 5G. A report by MarketsandMarkets estimated that the network slicing market will reach $1.2 billion by 2025, growing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of over 50% from 2019. However, the actual size of the market will depend on the pace of 5G rollout, the adoption of network slicing by industries, and how effectively the challenges associated with network slicing and 5G SA rollout are addressed.”

Uusitalo notes that we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves however, and that new technologies like this take a while to bed in: “While there is always buzz and anticipation around new technologies, in practice, it takes time to put the key building blocks in place. We have learned that implementing slicing technologies into CSP’s networks should be done as an evolution step-by-step. However, we’re already seeing first commercial services using network slicing such as Fixed Wireless Access for homes, 5G Virtual Private Networks for enterprises and we will see more CSPs offering services using the technology to their customers 2023 onwards.”

Network slicing may be something of a niche within a niche, but our panel of experts seem to agree its going to become a more prevalent part of telecoms in years to come.

Want to know more about 5G? Check out our comprehensive guide to the technology and issues behind 5G here, and some future gazing predictions regarding 6G here.

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About the Author(s)

Andrew Wooden

Andrew joins Telecoms.com on the back of an extensive career in tech journalism and content strategy.

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