Slicing the Connected Car – A Use Case on Wheels

BY BRENDAN WALSH

In last week’s blog, Cloudstreet founder and CTO Mika Skarp took a deep dive into some of the misconceptions around network slicing, net neutrality and the belief, however mistaken, that it will take some monolithic use case or “killer app” to bring the whole thing to life.

Pointing to the very same sort of monocular thinking that was in play during the lead up to 3G in the late 90s and early 2000s, he drew parallels between these two game-changing moments in telecom. His point is well taken; that they are in fact built upon and defined by the very diversity of services they deliver rather than some all-consuming singularity. In the case of 3G it was an ocean of purpose-built apps opened up by a generational standard that could, for the first time, handle data on a large scale. From gaming to chat to mapping and traffic, 3G was the first time we truly understood what the smart phone fuss was all about.

In the simplest terms, a sliced network is merely a continuation of this trajectory, but with one important difference; that the network will for the first time begin playing a key role in tailoring the experience to the app, device or context. In Skarp’s words; “Whereas in today’s networks, applications adapt their performance to the network actually providing the capacity, in a sliced world, the network is adapting its performance to requesting application's need.”

This is the promise of Network Slicing, but not everyone seems to get it. And perhaps when we argue that no one app will reign supreme, perhaps one application or use case will in fact be the best way of explaining, not just the enormous opportunity of network slicing, but the dire need for it.

At the recent GSMA Mobile 360 conference in Brussels, T-Mobile CTO Johannes Springer made one of the strongest cases for network slicing yet and with the simplest and possible most compelling use case, the connected car. In fact, and as he pointed out in the session title,  Paving the Way for Connected Cars” we are really talking about multiple use cases, all of them critical, and all of them very unique in their purpose and requirements.

Although the connected car may seem to be a long way off, in fact it is already here. While autonomous vehicles are still the stuff of the 20s, use cases like remote lock/unlock, system software updates and even navigation are among the slew of connected car use cases that are crying for network slicing, and particularly its neapolitan flavour, Dynamic Network Slicing. But let’s just focus for a minute on the future case - the autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicle - as it’s both the most dramatic and the most compelling.

We can all agree that autonomous vehicles are not a matter of if but when. Certainly there have been a few bumps in the road. The well-publicized crash resulting in the death of a Tesla auto-pilot vehicle test driver and Uber’s high-profile scrapping of its self-driving car program have only lent credence to the sense that, “yes it’s a great idea, but no, don’t try it at home", that is until all the bugs are worked out.

One of the bugs has nothing at all to do with the cars or their computers and everything to do with connectivity. While not all aspects of an autonomous car’s mobile connection rise the life or death category, you only need one such application to make “best effort” a non starter, pardon the pun. Do you really want to see messages like “Ah, Snap! Your car can't connect to the network, Please try again later”, or “This important software update could not be completed do to a connectivity issue”? I should say not.

Springer brings us through a logical set of questions to arrive at Network Slicing. As he rightly points out, we can dismiss the idea of the automotive industry having its own dedicated network. This would be to work at cross purposes with the single, "unified network for all use cases" paradigm, and the economy scale that 5G requires to thrive. On the flipside, he argues that asking carriers to build out all of the specific requirements for automotive as one giant vertical slice would be “maybe too complex for operators to manage”.

So, Springer argues. the logical solution is ““network slices on one physical layer for several purposes,” and that includes autonomous vehicle functionality down the road. But before we get all futuristic and go auto-pilot there are already a slew of other applications for the connected car that represent high-value opportunities in waiting for both the auto industry and mobile network operators. As Springer points out, guaranteeing connectivity while driving within the context of an integrated mobile experience will only help reduce driver distraction and accidents. Perhaps the insurance industry would like to weigh in on this one?

While there may not be one killer app for network slicing, perhaps the connected car makes for the clearest and most compelling case to get slicing.