Network slicing, despite all the hype that has surrounded it in the past few years, is seen as a long term option for most operators, at least as far as fully dynamic, end-to-end, multi-access slicing is concerned. But China Mobile, always one of the prime movers behind the technology, claims it will be offering slicing services as soon as it has a standalone 5G network (5G NR SA, with its own core), which will start as early as next year.
China Mobile had originally been the sole MNO which aimed to deploy 5G SA from day one, rather than rolling out its first networks using the Non-Standalone (NSA) technology, which uses the LTE core. It pulled back from that stance in the interests of hitting targets to start commercial 5G services early in 2020, but its roadmap towards a full 5G core remains aggressive compared to most MNOs worldwide, most of which see 5G SA as a multiyear project.
Deploying a fully 5G, cloud-native core is a major undertaking, even for an operator like China Mobile, which is already significantly cloud-based. But it will enable transformation of the MNO’s business model in a way that a radio upgrade does not. A microservices-based 5G core can support a high level of agility and flexibility in how network resources are configured and allocated – dynamically shifting to support different connectivity requirements for different use cases or subscribers.
The logical evolution of that agility is slicing, in which each use case or even individual customer can access a virtual section of the network, fully optimized for their particular requirements and fully separated from other traffic on the system. This will allow MNOs to go far beyond 5G connectivity, potentially creating slices on the fly that orchestrate fixed as well as wireless resources, cloud and security capabilities and other elements, owned by the telco itself or by operators and other partners round the world. Eventually, a slice might be called up by a particular application or user on-demand.
That fully dynamic, user-centric vision is many years away, even for China Mobile and other slicing pioneers like SK Telecom. So far, most operators are thinking of more modest steps such as FANS (allocating slices of fixed networks to different tenants) or enhanced VPN (virtual private network) services. These reflect the fact that the 5G radio does not yet support slicing in a standardized way – that will require future standards, starting in Release 16, and the 5G core. So early slicing has been mainly focused on fixed networks. Even when operators plan for mobile or fixed/mobile slicing, they are mainly talking in terms of fat, static slices – for instance, one to support the automotive industry, or generic low latency applications, rather than individual customers.
In China Mobile’s case, the initial focus is on integrated cloud and edge cloud computing with 5G, orchestrating connectivity and data processing capabilities from the 5G core in a customized way. Initially this is quite geographically focused – customization will be for certain localized entities such as cities or manufacturing complexes or power plants, and orchestration for particular requirements on a nationwide scale will follow as the core platform is refined and the 5G network extends its footprint.
The company believes its network will reach the tipping point in terms of industrial scale by June 2020, and it will then start offering commercial slicing services. It is targeting its 5G build-out to reach 50 cities by the end of 2019 and 300 major cities by the end of 2020.
Like many operators, the world’s largest MNO believes private industrial networks, tailored for the particular performance requirements of different sectors, will be an important opportunity in the 5G era, and that slicing is a cost-effective approach for industries and for telcos, and one that keeps control of the private networking boom in the control of the operators, not alternative providers like enterprise integrators or webscalers.
Lu Lu, a senior researcher at the China Mobile Research Institute (CMRI), said in a recent presentation hat 5G was “born for industry” and that the agile nature of the 5G core would support far more granular services. Edge computing would also be critical to the private networking business, as many enterprises need localized data processing and analytics as well as connectivity, whether that is to support low latency or enhanced security and data privacy. Lu said China Mobile aims to provide “full-stack edge computing capabilities to industry customers” and has already “reserved hundreds of nodes in edge computing rooms” which will now support 5G/edge slicing trials over the coming months.
The operator has also published its network slicing templates for six industries – power grid, autonomous driving, gaming, entertainment, banking and healthcare, which will be its initial targets for private networking.
EVP Li Zhengmao told Chinese state news service Xinhua: “Operators can create a network slicing-as-a-service business model, providing high reliability, high performance and easy deployment for the vertical industry through a centralized network slicing service platform.”
Even a telco of this scale knows that it cannot command every element of the industrial edge/5G value chain, and it has set up a 5G Joint Innovation Center with the aim of creating an application development ecosystem, involving more than 500 industry partners and more than 400 vertical industry participants, according to Li.