Where are we with 5G and Network Slicing?

By Mika Skarp

No doubt but the year 2017 marks the beginning of a new mobile era. There are already many fixed/wireless trials in the works employing pre-5G standard air interfaces. Meanwhile with the winter Olympics in Korea just 6 months away, KT amoung others are promising to showcase yet more high profile 5G implementations. But while these trials take centre stage, behind the scenes many 5G skeptics are voicing the kinds of questions no emperor, clothed or un-clothed wants to hear. Is 5G a solution without a problem? If not, what problem is it hoping to solve?

As far as the current trials go, the focus is on solving the problem of last mile connectivity. In this new paradigm, instead of laying fibre down to the door of every home we can employ 5G radio to connect houses to the fibre wireline. No doubt this is the kind of low cost, value add operators are looking for, but it’s certainly not the stuff of the epic digital transformation touted for 5G. What’s more, most consumers won’t see it or even understand it as mobile. We should also point out the fact that this type of fixed mobile convergence is nothing new – in fact it was the primary use case for WiMAX networks back in the day.  

If we leave fixed wireless aside for a minute and focus on the core use cases cited for 5G, these include: Massive IoT, enhanced broadband and ultra reliable connections. This confirms that one network will be used for wildly different purposes with conflicting requirements. However it doesn’t paint a particularly clear picture at the level of specific consumer use cases. Take the AR/VR thing, both having received a lot of attention of late, but very little in terms of actual, mass market or even in-market applications that 5G would serve. This doesn’t mean they won’t arrive and who knows what the next Pokemon type AR craze will be, but we’re just not there yet.

A solution without a problem?

As pressure mounts to begin the big 5G bonanza we have heard the cautionary choruses from operators telling us that the business models need to be there and clear first before they begin to invest in earnest in next generation mobile network technologies. Those older, greyer or perish the thought, balder amoung us will remember that this was precisely the discussion we had back when 3G networks were to be introduced. One way to get out of this quagmire is to look at known use cases and ask what benefits they may bring to the mobile operator. Massive IoT might seem a good place to start but it remains a fractured market of devices with no critical mass in any one direction. Still it's a great way to prove the model. By introducing network slicing carriers will instantly enjoy the freedom to generate different kinds of connections at different price points.

There is no doubt that this will change the operator business model dramatically. With network slicing the carrier will evolve its service environment from being a one-size-fits none network to having a spectrum of different kinds of subscriptions at different price points. But to truly get out of the quagmire, we need a first mover consumer use case that fills the bill on scale and viability of the business model. Once that first use case is in place the second, third and four hundredth will be much more simple.

The good news is, it seems that we have identified the first use case, IPTV, and it’s already making waves amoung carriers we are talking with. As more players are getting into the game and an increasing amount of content is coming on line, and much of it going toward mobile it will become increasingly important for operators to ensure quality of experience and take even greater control of their OTT video-bedraggled networks. Anyone who’s been streaming video over the last few years (and by the last count that’s at least 75% of us) has had the experience of low picture quality, dropouts and all out flat liners. Improving network performance and making those issues go away will be a boon to consumers, something they’ll easily understand and value. And who'd have thought it has always been possible in 4G networks.

With a little help from Cloudstreet’s Dynamic Profile Controller™ (DPC™), any 4G network can become the sliced network of the future. What’s more this first application of the technology could easily become a stepping stone from the ways of old to a new business environment where network performance is determined from the user, application and device out. Far from a loss leader, the sliced IPTV use case will prove the revenue generating potential of network slicing and open the door future, implementations that will be even simpler.  

On the video side this will also serve to galvanize the carriers proper role as a distribution channel or partner. While the TV content companies, soon to include Apple consolidate their distribution strategies and get their apps onto every device they can, the carriers will be there with a next generation business model that will prioritize their customer’s favourite third party streams. Now is the time to make this happen. 5G will be a beautiful thing when it comes, but waiting for some impossibly ideal conditions to arrive first will ensure it never does. The time is now.