Two Vodafone initiatives bring network slicing a step closer

In the early days of network slicing, it was heavily associated with the mobile industry, and many concepts were developed by MNO-driven organizations like the NGMN Alliance. However, as with ETSI MEC – which morphed from Mobile to Multi-Access Edge Computing – it is now clear that these advanced network architectures can only deliver on their promises if they span fixed and mobile, wireline and wireless, and every network domain from transport to access to core.

So, one of the first public commercial plans to deploy network slicing has come from Vodafone, but specifically as a way to enhance the business models for its converged operations in the Netherlands and Ireland.

The company has talked up two plans since the start of the year. One is in The Netherlands, where it has a joint venture with cableco Liberty Global called Vodafone Ziggo (the two firms have recently started talking, again, about more extensive asset sales or swaps, in which case the precedents set by this Ziggo roll-out might get a higher group-wide profile).

Vodafone Ziggo is planning to deploy a virtualized evolved packet core (vEPC) from Ericsson in the second half of this year to provide a more flexible platform to support rising data traffic efficiently. More strategically, however, the vEPC will also form the foundation for plans to offer network slicing, providing optimized virtual slices of wireline and wireless resources to meet industrial customers’ specific requirements. In particular, this will help the operator support emerging requirements for ultra-reliable or ultra-low latency connectivity, it said, which were being driven by mobile-first enterprise strategies and the Industrial IoT.

Arun Bansal, head of the Europe and Latin America regions at Ericsson, said in a statement: “Last year VodafoneZiggo selected us as the supplier of Mobile Core and IMS Core. With the addition of the Ericsson virtual EPC solution, we are now delivering a suite of scalable, tightly integrated and future-proof core network solutions.” The Swedish vendor also supplies the Dutch operator with its macro RAN and a range of managed services including network roll-out, deployment, design and optimization; and is working with it on a 5G-ready upgrade and on low power networks based on NB-IoT and LTE-M.

In Ireland, Vodafone has tested a technology which it says will lay the groundwork for network slicing, which in turn will enable new business models and help the deployment of fiber networks. It worked with Huawei on a trial which created separate virtualized slices for consumers and enterprises, with different network characteristics, on the same fiber-to-the-home link.

One slice carried standard residential broadband and Vodafone TV services, while the other carried the operator’s OneNet service for businesses, which includes voice. Each service could be managed by its own operations team, which might come from an MVNO or enterprise service provider, not necessarily Vodafone itself. That would enable the MNO to support a wider number and variety of MVNOs and enterprise specialists – eventually on a dynamic basis – in order to expand its revenue streams and use its infrastructure to the full. These secondary operators were able to provision, configure and assure a service with “little or no intervention” from the owner of the network, the trial suggested.

Matt Beal, director of technology architecture and strategy at Vodafone, wrote in a blog post that he was “confident” this fixed access network slicing would increase overall usage levels and stimulate the development of new services.

One advantage he foresaw was that it could make it easier to pursue co-investment models for high capex infrastructure build-outs like FTTH or 5G. “Vodafone has deployed several FTTH networks around the world and many of these are with partners,” Beal wrote. “Virtualization of the fixed access network will help us build and fill FTTH networks in a more cost-effective way that takes advantage of new operating models where both Vodafone and its deployment partners are able to differentiate their services over the shared fiber infrastructure.”

Despite its mobile roots, slicing is easier to deploy in fixed networks at the current time because, until the 5G New Radio is commercially implemented, it remains impossible to slice the air interface, so that any slice stops short of the mobile device.