As with lanes on a road or motorway, a priority channel is sometimes needed in telecommunications to carry essential traffic from emergency services and critical business applications. This will become even more critical, if as predicted, network traffic on Vodafone’s digital highways continues to grow at 30% each year.
To ensure vital services aren’t disrupted, Vodafone is working on offering business customers their own slice of network to support on-demand, dedicated and secure end-to-end connectivity. Last year, it demonstrated how a slice of dedicated network carrying live 5G traffic could be delivered within 30 minutes of an order being placed. And more recently, during the coronation of King Charles III, Vodafone was able to dedicate a small part of the network to ensure broadcaster ITN could transfer live content without being impacted by the crowds of people using their smartphones to share pictures and videos of the historic occasion.
5G Slices – from Ambulances to Pop-up Shops
Network slicing, as its known, enables Vodafone Business to create several different virtual networks that can be isolated from each other on the same physical equipment. It means emergency services, other public sector organisations, and businesses could order, for example, their own fast 5G slice and have it delivered for use by an ambulance, an operating room, a pop-up shop or on the factory floor.
Alberto Ripepi, Chief Network Officer, Vodafone, likens network slicing to a dedicated lane for traffic, whether its emergency services, public transport, cyclists, or pedestrians. “Vodafone Business customers are given their own lane, either dedicated or shared between a specific group, that can be opened or closed to suit their needs,” he explained. He is quick to point out that network slicing is not a new concept, but with the advent of pure 5G networks known as 5G Standalone (5G SA), which are built differently from most networks in use today, it is expected to become more commonplace.
Currently, most networks comprise largely of 5G masts connected to a 4G core network, called non-standalone 5G. However, 5G SA comes with a new cloud-native core and advanced service capabilities built in. The greater flexibility this brings allows Vodafone to make changes, like introducing a new network slice in a specific location, remotely and relatively quickly. 5G SA also helps extend 5G coverage.
Alberto explained: “Since each slice is a virtual partition of the network, it is possible to optimise the performance and tailor it for specific uses. We see the adoption of a hybrid approach where private networks are deployed for critical and sensitive applications in tandem with public slices supported on the wide area network such as for supporting an important public event or broadcast.”
Business and Public Sector Benefits
Proponents of network slicing point out that it can support a very wide range of business and public sector solutions, such as autonomous assembly-line robots, remote healthcare, and virtual and augmented reality.
“There are clear benefits for businesses and public sector organisations alike,” added Amanda Jobbins, Chief Marketing Officer & Director of Strategic Partners at Vodafone Business.
“Imagine all the healthcare applications that could benefit from network slicing, like remote video assessment by doctors in emergencies or remotely assisted surgery. Each activity would need a highly stable, secure, and specialised network slice.
“In the future, our customers could have a separate slice for specialised applications, as there will be slightly nuanced performance needs for each type of service. Network slicing is about building networks that work in the best way possible for all the activities our customers might want to do. It’s an exciting prospect.”
From Wide Area Coverage to Low Latency
The potential use cases for network slicing are extensive. One business customer, for example, may need to connect many Internet of Things (IoT) devices across a dispersed geographical area using a 5G category called Massive Machine-Type Communications (mMTC), whereas another business customer could require ultra-reliable low-latency communication (URLLC). In this scenario, a business using industrial automation may require the shortest lag possible between a device receiving an answer from a distant server, sometimes just a fraction of a second.
Although Vodafone heavily invests every year in boosting the capacity of its networks, there will always be occasions where a sudden influx of mobile users to a single mast could experience reduced performance. This may be acceptable if checking the latest football scores but less so if supporting hospital equipment or remotely driving an autonomous truck on a construction site.
Mobile Private Networks
This is one reason why Vodafone is also focused on providing dedicated 5G private networks to business and public sector critical applications. It expects the number of mobile private network sites across its core European markets to grow to many thousands by 2026 from a few hundred today.
Vodafone is poised to capitalise on this growth opportunity, and it has built a presence, either in-house or in partnership, across all seven components of the network slicing value chain – from connectivity, specialised data management and analytics platforms to systems integration and end-to-end solutions.
Alberto continued: “We recognise that businesses are not just looking to automate their many labour-intensive and expensive processes, they realise that innovative technology is an operational asset.
“For example, at its technical centre in Nardó, Italy, Porsche can use a mobile private network offering from Vodafone to test and validate fast and safe connected vehicle technologies across its 700-hectare site, comprising 20 driving tracks. This gives them greater control and bandwidth coupled with improved security and reliability that a private channel brings.
“However, we are not stopping at the test track, we are now looking at innovative ways to extend these benefits to more challenging environments such as construction sites, as well as exploring how businesses serve their own consumers.”
To this end, Vodafone Germany has built an independent 5G SA campus network on wheels. This enables 5G to be used on construction sites where there is little or no network coverage, and in good weather conditions, solar panels can be used to provide a ‘green’ self-sufficient energy supply instead of diesel generators. The mobile real-time network was used for the first time in a research project in Hoyerswerda, Saxony.
Also in Germany, Vodafone offers 4G network slicing to businesses, recognising that many end users’ devices are not yet compatible with 5G SA. The 4G-based network slicing was first tested last year during the smartphone-based live transmission of motorsport’s ADAC GT Masters at the Nürburgring. Despite high network usage, the video stream from broadcaster RTL TV was transmitted reliably and in high quality directly from the pit lane to the broadcasting centre without the need for complex radio technology or coils of cabling.
Connectivity Now Complements Content
With 5G network slicing, connectivity can now directly complement the content it is carrying. However, in facilitating this, Vodafone must be conscious of and comply with all relevant regulation, including the open internet rules.
Given these are new use cases, the application of such rules has not yet been tested in detail. Vodafone therefore welcomes the recent European Commission statement that such services should be possible within the scope of the current framework in Europe, and that further guidance should be provided to given innovators and consumers more legal certainty as to how to design these propositions.
Vodafone will continue to engage closely with the European Commission and other stakeholders to support the shaping of this additional guidance in the near term.
Amanda agreed: “With greater regulatory clarity, we can help support more businesses across Europe with their critical applications. Network slicing, along with our digital platforms and fast connectivity and cyber-security services, are all part of the backbone of the EU’s digital drive to help organisations across multiple sectors become more secure, productive, and competitive globally.”