What Is Network Slicing and why is it needed in 5G NR?

As 5G mobile network deployments gain traction worldwide, it is important to look at some of the core values 5G networks offer to the customers that set them apart from the earlier mobile network technologies. Network slicing is based on network virtualisation principles, and it belongs to the same league as software-defined networks (SDN) and network function virtualisation (NFV). Before diving into the technology itself, let us try to understand what problem network slicing solves. If you think about it, we have been fine so far with 3G and 4G networks, so what can network slicing possibly bring to the table for it to be a key requirement for 5G networks?

Network slicing is a capability in 5G networks that allows a mobile operator to create multiple virtual portions (slices) within the physical network to serve various use cases. Network slicing requires a software-based architecture (SBA) that is provided by the 5G core network in standalone 5G.

What does network slicing mean?

Network slicing is a technology that allows mobile operators to create multiple virtual networks within the actual physical network so that each virtual network can serve a different business need or use case. It means that depending on the use case in question, the mobile operator can define a virtual network (or slice) that can utilise all the network capabilities to cater to that particular use case in the best way possible.

So in the broadband and self-driving car example above, one network slice may focus on providing high-speed mobile broadband services, while the other may focus on ultra-low latency for self-driving cars.

As you may know from our earlier post on standalone and non-standalone 5G networks, an end-to-end 5G network is required to benefit from the futuristic technologies and use cases that it supports. The non-standalone version of 5G (NSA) is not an end-to-end 5G network as it relies on a 4G core network (Evolved Packet Core – EPC). So even though NSA can help facilitate high-speed broadband services, it is not the right deployment model for network slicing. The standalone version of 5G employs the cloud-native core network, which is a software-based architecture. The software-based architecture enables mobile operators to define logical functions in an easy to manage way.

What business problem network slicing solves

Irrespective of how some of us may perceive the 5G technology, high-speed broadband is not really what 5G is all about. It does provide enhanced mobile broadband services (eMBB), and average speeds of over 100 Mbps are hardly a challenge for 5G, but the real beneficiaries of the 5G technology are large enterprises such as manufacturing units and factories whose businesses can be digitised through the capabilities 5G has to offer. 5G caters for a vast number of use cases, and different use cases may have different technology needs. For example, if you wanted to use 5G as your home broadband service, you probably would be OK if you were getting download speeds of around 100-150 Mbps with a latency of around 25 milliseconds. The network resources 5G requires in order to achieve that kind of speed and latency may be hugely different from what it would require to provide connectivity for self-driving cars. The problem network slicing solves is that it eliminates the need for a mobile operator to deploy two very different 5G networks to cater for two very different use cases.

Why mobile operators need network slicing?

A mobile network is a massive investment for a mobile operator. By utilising the network resources efficiently, they are better positioned to increase their revenues (ARPU – Average Revenue Per User) from consumers and Enterprise customers. Using a software-based architecture, the network resources can be adjusted as and when needed, giving a mobile operator a lot of flexibility. Network slicing allows a mobile operator to create slices for different customer or market segments. As a result, they can plan resources and offer a better quality of service to their customers. Network slicing allows a mobile operator to have a number of virtual networks within the same physical network infrastructure, allowing them to achieve their business goals whilst maximising network utilisation by making software-based changes to the existing network.

With network slicing, everything is based on the service being offered to the customer through the end-user application. Depending on the business need that the end-user application targets, necessary network resources and computing power from the physical network can be assigned to the application to address that need. For the end-user application, the network slices are just like independent networks.

Here are some helpful downloads

Thank you for reading this post, I hope it helped you in developing a better understanding of cellular networks. Sometimes, we need some extra support, especially when preparing for a new job, studying a new topic, or maybe just buying a new phone. Whatever you are trying to do, here are some downloads that can help you:

Students & fresh graduates: If you are just starting, the complexity of the cellular industry can be a bit overwhelming. But don’t worry, I have created this FREE ebook so you can familiarise yourself with the basics like 3G, 4G etc. As a next step, check out the latest edition of the same ebook with more details on 4G & 5G networks with diagrams. You can then read Mobile Networks Made Easy, which explains the network nodes, e.g., BTS, MSC, GGSN etc.

Professionals: If you are an experienced professional but new to mobile communications, it may seem hard to compete with someone who has a decade of experience in the cellular industry. But not everyone who works in this industry is always up to date on the bigger picture and the challenges considering how quickly the industry evolves. The bigger picture comes from experience, which is why I’ve carefully put together a few slides to get you started in no time. So if you work in sales, marketing, product, project or any other area of business where you need a high-level view, Introduction to Mobile Communications can give you a quick start. Also, here are some templates to help you prepare your own slides on the product overview and product roadmap.

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