Network slicing: Enabling the 5G future

Everyone’s talking about 5G. Industries as diverse as healthcare, agriculture, automotive, broadcast, utilities and public safety – to name but a few – have all been strategising how they can use the new connectivity standard to drive efficiencies, improve business and enhance the end-user experience. There is a need to define and trial use cases now, ahead of commercial 5G roll out, in order to address potential challenges before they crop up further down the line. However, perhaps of even more importance is the need to develop the enabling technologies which will play an essential behind-the-scenes role. These include network slicing.

How will network slicing enable 5G?
The diverse range of use cases for 5G is evident by the sheer number of industries exploring the technology. Think back to MWC Barcelona – or more recently, MWC Shanghai – as an illustration of how many new sectors are encroaching on a space once dominated solely by telcos. Network slicing adds an extra dimension to the NFV domain, and allows more than one network function to be in operation at one time, on a shared infrastructure. This allows a single network operator to manage multiple virtual networks (which will likely require different latency, throughput, availability etc), each assigned to a different 5G function, and therefore enabling the vast array of 5G use cases.
Different 5G verticals have different focuses, meaning network slicing will be part of the fundamental design of any 5G network. This model allows for the optimisation of every part of a system, reducing costs, maximising resources and granting a greater degree of freedom and flexibility to network operators managing numerous networks. With networks ‘sliced’ into independently managed, controlled and customised sections, operators can trial potential new 5G services easily, and bring them to market rapidly.

Supporting our partners
At Cobham Wireless we’ve been investing resources in the research and development of network slicing, and we’re currently working to develop the underlying technologies that will enable this approach.

The journey to 5G via network slicing can be seen as a four-step process. Steps one and two are identifying and developing network slicing technology, followed by steps three and four: the implementation and roll-out of 5G. Cobham Wireless is invested in this entire process. We’ve been collaborating with and supporting our partners on steps one and two to create the perfect test bed environment to develop and validate 5G networks, helping them to secure and progress their 5G roadmaps to achieve steps three and four further down the line.

Where are we now?
Well, we recognise the complex requirements of current and future network operations and the need to make network slicing an efficient process. As such, we’re investing in the essential testing technologies to deliver this, including automated intelligent computer testing management, orchestration, and traffic and device behaviour modelling capabilities in terms of how to check the network operational alignment of different scenarios. We have the foundations of a test solution and are working towards developing this solution to create the scenarios required to check the network in order to exercise network slicing operations and decisions effectively.

The results of much recent R&D work to develop new 5G services were showcased recently at MWC Shanghai. Away from the show floor, Cobham Wireless has been laying the groundwork to test and enable systems to slice efficiently and dynamically. This work is fundamental in order for the technologies such as those demonstrated at MWC, to become reality.

How long will it be before network slicing becomes a reality?
A number of influencing factors are currently in play. Firstly, some network slicing concepts have already materialised on 4G networks. For example, quite a lot of the NB-IoT services have been implemented via a software option onto the existing base station architecture, which is arguably the beginning of the network slicing concept.

Secondly, many involved in the development cycle of 5G are not placing network slicing at the top of their list of priorities. They are focussing instead on developing the 5G interface and network functions and capabilities, in order to hit set KPIs. Only then will they move onto network operations efficiency, including the application of network slicing.

Within the test and measurement market, Cobham Wireless has been at the forefront of 5G development – evidenced most recently by our TM500 launch; the industry’s first 5G network test solution. We have taken a similar pioneering approach towards developing network slicing, although when it comes to 5G, operators will likely focus on traditional interface and compatibility validation first, before the industry collectively progresses to network slicing.

The future
Industry excitement around 5G is justified: it will bring new technologies, new services and new opportunities to a huge range of different industries. In addition to helping our partners develop their infrastructure and instilling in them the confidence needed to deploy 5G networks in time, Cobham Wireless has also been undertaking essential exploratory and development work on that 5G enabler, network slicing. We’re committed to a mission of realising this fundamental technology which will ensure the future and effectiveness of 5G.

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Li-Ke Dr Li-Ke Huang
Research & Technology Director, Cobham Wireless

Li-Ke leads the Technology Group and the Algorithms Group at Cobham Wireless, and is responsible for product concept and core technology innovations contributing to the company’s technological and business visions, directions and strategies, including 5G.

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