Everything you need to know about network slicing and its role in 5G

With the 5G roll-out well underway, questions have arisen about how best to enable the new service and what network infrastructure will be required to realise 5G’s full potential. Fortunately, there are technologies that can help, like network slicing – and with benefits for everyone from businesses to service providers, it’s a topic well worth exploring.

What is network slicing and why is it worth doing?

Network slicing is often compared to Software Defined Networking (SDN) and Network Function Virtualisation (NFV), as a technology that harmonises the infrastructure of the fixed layer to improve visibility, control and flexibility, making it easier for organisations to manage their networks. It works by chopping up existing networks to ensure dedicated bandwidth to a selected application or process, as well as offering reduced latency, sensitivity or speed to an organisation’s most critical systems. All while protecting them from network failure.

As 5G has lower latency connections with high bandwidth capability, it’s faster to initiate a connection and send more information to the user – something that was traditionally only available through fixed fibre connectivity. With network slicing, businesses with multiple applications can allocate different latency or bandwidth capabilities to specific systems that have a greater capacity need – such as IoT-enabled smart metres.

How will network slicing be used?

Network slicing will prove invaluable as 5G becomes the standard, especially for those involved in IoT, where there is high potential for growth. For example, autonomous vehicles could truly become ubiquitous, as assured access to a low latency, high capacity network makes required safety levels possible. Meanwhile, organisations everywhere will be able to use network slicing to revolutionise the way they work remotely. Projects in industries that require low latency (such as gaming, distributed performance and robotic control) can take place collaboratively across disparate locations, and there could be guaranteed availability options available for fields like telemedicine.

Beyond the business and technology worlds, network slicing will also prove invaluable for public sector bodies. For instance, the emergency services often experience high capacity requirements during large events such as concerts or live sport matches. 5G will decrease the time it takes to react to these. Network slicing meanwhile, will allow a software defined controller to direct capacity to those emergency services without impacting consumer networks, which may already be congested or at full capacity.

It’s undoubtably a useful and important way to ensure companies and government sectors are getting the most use out of the network. But ultimately, the benefits will be felt across the board, as citizens enjoy better device connectivity and smarter, more efficient cities.

The opportunity for network providers

The benefits of network slicing on 5G networks are clear, and it’s certainly a capability for which many will be willing to pay a premium. For providers and Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) it could even prove a key competitive differentiator – important at a point in time when so many are striving to ‘lead the 5G charge’. With this new technology, operators can go beyond offering a standard service to provide truly tailored packages.

However, as with any new technology, there will be challenges for providers to overcome first. For example, they will need to define how best to respond to the increasing demand for more data and understand how to gain access to ‘virtually limitless’ capacity of dark fibre because it allows organisations to scale-up their network in line with their bandwidth requirements. Building the right partner relationships will be fundamental in being able to scale as you grow.

Preparations are already underway to help telcos accommodate the new network. SSE Enterprise Telecoms for example, is deploying fibre in key 5G hotspots across the UK. The network can then be split into dedicated high-capacity wavelengths for each operator, allowing the organisations involved to split the cost of a single fibre network.

Seizing the potential of network slicing

The potential of 5G is huge, but its widespread use will undoubtedly cause network pressure to grow exponentially. Network slicing is just one of the technologies that can counteract this problem – and it’s certainly one that should be of significant interest to service providers and MNOs.

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