5G camps debate standardizing individual network slices

More than 40 organizations already have joined the Service Management Industry Specification Group (ZSM ISG) under ETSI. (ETSI)

There’s no doubt that network slicing is going to be part of 5G, but the jury is out as to whether the network slices themselves are going to be standardized.

“There are some people who are saying yes, we should standardize the slice. Others are saying no, you don’t need to do that because the operators will do that in conjunction with their customer,” ETSI CTO Adrian Scrase told FierceWirelessTech.

But that raises questions: What if you’re an ultra-reliable user and you’re buying a slice from one operator and you want to roam into another operator’s domain? How can you be sure you’ll get the same level of service? “This is the complexity the groups are looking at now, how can you assure consistency of experience when you move from one operator to another if you are subscribing to a particular service,” he said.

It’s a perfectly natural conversation to be having at this time. “It’s still early days,” he said, and there’s still a lot of discussion going on in committee rooms about the level to which slices should be defined.

“I don’t think it’s unusual that at this stage that we’re having this sort of debate,” he added. “It is quite natural that you have these healthy debates about how you see this being implemented and what standards are needed.”

Another debate surrounds how many slices are needed—should there be somewhere between five and 10 defined slices or should it be an infinitely variable number of slices? At this point, there’s no consensus on exactly how that will map out. “It could be infinitely variable if you want, but that becomes a very complex network to manage,” he noted.

And it would be wrong to nail down everything so tightly in standards that everything was predetermined, he added. “We don’t want to write standards that constrain operators in their thinking,” he said. “You need to have standards clear enough from an engineering point but loose enough to enable people to innovate.”

ETSI recently announced that its new Zero touch network and Service Management Industry Specification Group (ZSM ISG) held its first meeting, with more than 40 organizations having joined the group. A leadership team was elected, with Klaus Martiny of Deutsche Telekom elected as chair of the ZSM ISG and Nurit Sprecher of Nokia and Christian Toche of Huawei elected as vice chairs. The Network Operators Council advisory group elected Ahiq Khan of DoCoMo as chair and Serge Manning of Sprint as vice chair.

The goal of ETSI’s ZSM ISG is to provide an end-to-end solution to have all operational processes and tasks—delivery, deployment, configuration, assurance and optimization—executed automatically, ideally with 100% automation. The group has a two-year life cycle, which can be extended if they need more time.

So how is the industry doing in its path to virtualization? Some say it’s not going fast enough, and others say it’s come a long way in SDN and NFV.

“From my point of view, I sort of see virtualization being synonymous with 5G,” Scrase said. “At least if you’re an operator that’s looking to virtualize your network, 5G is an opportunity to sort of lead you to do that by natural circumstances anyway.”

Plus, it’s sort of inconceivable for an operator to do network slicing without a virtualized network. To some extent the acceleration to 5G has led operators to say 5G is the point at which they will be ready to fully virtualize, and in the meantime, they’re experimenting and gaining confidence.

“I don’t think any operator wants to fully virtualize at the moment until they gain a bit more experience and they have confidence in the products,” he said, noting that it’s unrealistic to think just because the standards are out there the implementations are going to be done straightaway. The role of the standards organizations is to make sure the standards are available and prove they’re interoperable.

Incidentally, he said, many industries outside of wireless have engaged in the 5G process, including maritime, broadcasting, drones, utilities and more. “I think we’ve made really good progress in the last 12 months in at least getting the early people involved in standards writing,” he said.

RELATED: Editor’s Corner—CES recap: 5G steals some of the spotlight

Including every industry out there would seem to be difficult, but he said that’s not necessarily so; a lot of the requirements for V2X, for example, aren’t much different from those for a high-speed railway, and they’re not much different from drone and drone control. If you look at the basic parameters, like latency, there’s a lot of commonality.

Efforts continue on getting more industries involved in the standards. Perhaps the hardest nut to crack, so to speak, is the healthcare sector, which is a huge market but one that’s very hard to penetrate.

While work is underway to improve the relationship, “there’s a lot of work that remains to be done, for sure,” he said. Then again, if all industries were to come into the process at the same time, it could be overwhelming, so a phased approach may not be such a bad thing.