As network technology continues to advance, mobile operators have begun to evaluate how they can monetize the 5G spectrum. Consumer networks alone are not going to pay back the enormous mobile operator investment in 5G, and voice, text, and data are no longer luxury items for which consumers will pay high sums – they are perceived as affordable and ubiquitous.
Unlike the consumer-oriented 5G market, the enterprise 5G segment presents a promising solution for operators by allowing them to allocate dedicated 5G spectrum to their business and public service clients. This specialized 5G spectrum can serve an enterprise's customers, employees, visitors, and IoT devices, offering high bandwidth and low latency for multiple devices within their private network. This approach is known as network slicing.
The key to network slicing is that operators reserve and manage each client's slice of the spectrum. The client can, in turn, use the spectrum to enhance the performance of a business or enterprise and improve their overall revenue. As a result, the operator has a viable and valuable service to sell, thanks to network slicing.
Network slicing state of play
A network slice could be sold on a temporary basis – for example, a conference, roadshow, sports event, or festival. However, it could have much longer-term applications. For instance, the managers of a major port could use the enhanced speed and bandwidth of 5G for a number of applications. These use cases can include self-operating vehicles, remote management, staff deployment, video instructions, and shipping turnaround – using wireless to enhance the smoother running of these operations or even introducing new, revenue-enhancing services.
In fact, this approach has already been trialed by a number of ports, and dedicated slicing standards are on the way. Just last month, the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) announced the establishment of its first Software Development Group, called OpenSlice, positioning itself as a focal point for development and experimentation with network slicing.
Slicing is easier said than done
Network slicing may be a desirable and increasingly feasible option, but it's not easy to implement. Firstly, several connectivity technologies are available on the market, and cellular wireless is no longer the only answer. 4G and 5G have ushered in an era of convergence in which optical transport networks, microwaves, data centers, and even satellites could also be part of the mix.
When considering the need for diverse forms of connectivity, the question arises: who is responsible for standardizing the different components within 5G networks? This task extends beyond the realms of the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) or ETSI. Entities such as TMForum, O-RAN Alliance, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), and more will also play crucial roles. Additionally, there may be involvement from multiple IoT standards and interfaces for Massive Machine-Type Communications (mMTC). Furthermore, the equation involves numerous vendors spanning infrastructure, networking software, systems integration, apps, security, and support. Given the intricate nature of this landscape, automation emerges as a potential solution.
Automation can fully enable network slicing, from provisioning a slice to managing its lifecycle, so it is quick to deploy and easy to manage – but the industry is not there yet.
Automation in action
Despite the significant potential of network slicing, the way forward is still being mapped out. Several experts recently collaborated to design and implement a blueprint for an end-to-end solution entirely provisioned and managed from the cloud. Capgemini Engineering worked on the proof of concept with Telefónica, supported by expertise in cloud, virtualization, service orchestration, O-RAN, disaggregation, and more.
Orchestrating the entire solution from the cloud was deemed critical. Indeed, one of the project's chief aims was to simplify network operations as much as possible through software transformation. A cloud-based approach allowed the team to disaggregate the software from the hardware and the management from the physical network. This made slicing easier and the elements involved easier to oversee and run.
While these are still early days, the teams developed an approach to pre-integrated network blueprints that can significantly reduce the cost of new network planning, design, and test cycles. In other words, it is possible to build a broad ecosystem that can overcome the challenges of network slicing using end-to-end automation to launch a network slice in 30 minutes or less.
The end customer – be it a port, a festival, or a local authority – will be none the wiser to these behind-the-scenes details. If the slice does what is promised, with as little complexity as possible, a major barrier to adoption will have been overcome thanks to automation.
The result? Operators can make the most of their investment in 5G and have the financial motivation to enhance 5G networks. At the same time, industries can use wireless to improve their operations and see real results in revenue terms.
This is just the beginning for network slicing – the process will continue to streamline, and new functions and services will be introduced on networks to unlock new business opportunities.
According to S&P Global, the four major operators in the US spent over $100B on 5G spectrum between 2020-2022. Recuperating those investments has been at the top of mind for many telcos, and network slicing is the answer. Network slicing has been a promising idea for too long, with too many practical hurdles holding it back. But leaders are becoming wise to the potential revenue streams that can be opened both for operators and enterprises – if network slicing can be automated. And for operators, monetizing the 5G spectrum is within sight.
Shamik Mishra is VP and CTO of Connectivity at Capgemini Engineering.