5G network slicing, for all its promise as a tool for helping mobile network operators create new services and monetize their networks, still has many technical and commercial challenges that need to be overcome.
Technical challenges start with having a 5G SA network, something most 5G providers have not deployed. Of the three largest mobile operators in the U.S. only T-Mobile has a nationwide 5G SA network using its 600MHz, 1900MHz, and 2.5GHz bands. AT&T has started to make SA available in markets where it has deployed its C-Band spectrum. Verizon told us on our The Week with Roger podcast that they have not launched SA yet as they have not found any applications that they could not do already with NSA.
Once the SA challenge has been overcome (and it isn’t easy), mobile network operators get to wrestle with such things as static versus dynamic slicing, and how the radio-to-device connection is allocated. Is the connection on dedicated spectrum or shared spectrum; is there any traffic prioritization or best effort? There are also complexities to be worked out within the network core when it comes to managing customer data and how to orchestrate different network slice profiles and to automate slice provisioning. Not to be overlooked, most devices in use currently do not support SA.
Commercially, there is still much education to be done. Right now, from what I have seen there remains confusion on the differences between network slicing and private mobile networks. To some people, it appears the only difference is who owns the network. Mobile network providers will need to not only teach businesses the differences between slicing and private mobile networks but are also going to need to educate businesses on the different types of network slicing.
On top of that mobile operators also must figure out how to market network slicing. This includes what services business will pay for and how to monetize those services. Even with all the challenges I have listed both technically and commercially, I am sure there are more I haven’t listed here. That is why when I did my last 5G slicing forecast, I didn’t think there would be any commercial activity in the U.S. until Q4 2023. It appears T-Mobile is proving that forecast correct.
In late September T-Mobile announced it was launching a SIM-based SASE service that utilizes network slicing. T-Mobile will be using static slicing to support the service. The slice profile will be supported in the core network with best effort spectrum allocation between the radio and the end-user.
This is a very simple implementation of slicing. It is a far cry from the vision of multiple dynamic network slices that an operator can instantaneously turn on and off or that come with various levels of RAN spectrum prioritization or preemption.
But this is a starting point for the commercialization of network slicing. Just like overall 5G capabilities are evolving as the technology matures, so will the capabilities of network slicing. From a commercial standpoint, T-Mobile also started with a simple, easy to communicate, easy to sell, commercial proposition.
Businesses understand the importance of network security. They know data drives modern businesses and any theft or corruption of that data can cause financial and reputational losses. Businesses also know both their wireline and wireless communications need to be secured.
In a survey Recon Analytics conducted in August of this year, 54% of business respondents said mobile network operators were their first choice for purchasing end-to-end security services. Of the 54% group, 25% said they were “very likely” to consider end-to-end network security from a mobile service provider as a factor in switching from their current mobile provider. Another 29% said they were “likely” to make the same consideration. Clearly there is customer demand for what T-Mobile wants to sell. This simplifies the commercial proposition for the operator. Other service providers looking to offer network slicing would be smart to follow T-Mobile’s approach.
Network slicing has a long way to go before it changes the fortunes of mobile operators, but they need to start somewhere. A simple initial approach is the best approach currently. Instead of thinking about creating customer specific network slices, focus on creating service specific profiles that can benefit multiple customers. Pick a few services that already have built-in demand, and use slicing to enhance those services instead of trying to create something totally new where there is more demand uncertainty. Keep it simple and go from there.
Daryl Schoolar is a director and analyst at Recon Analytics where he focuses on telecommunication service providers and companies that provide networking communication solutions to those service providers. Some of the topics he covers are digital transformation, 5G, 6G, cloud networking, and telecom service strategies.
"Industry Voices" are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by Fierce staff. They do not necessarily represent the opinions of Fierce.