As we come closer to making 5G a reality, OTTs and service providers will soon be able to look forward to implementing 5G’s network slicing capabilities within their business operations, in addition to being a new source of revenue to operators. Telecom Review Asia Pacific sat down with Mr Jason Tu Jiashun, Principal Scientist of NFV/SDN Solutions at ZTE Corporation to find out more about this exciting new possibility. 

Could you explain the benefits of 5G network slicing capabilities for OTTs and service providers?

5G end-to-end network slicing solution integrates SDN/NFV, network slicing and related technologies to help different kinds of enterprises have their own Service-Level Agreement (SLA) guaranteed Virtualized Private Network (VPN)/slice at an affordable price. It will solve the pain-point and meet the demand for private networks while bringing more competitiveness to thousands of enterprises thanks to affordable costs and better end-user experience. In the past, the only way for enterprises to have a private mobile network was to build a physical network and create a professional network operation team.

Only large enterprises, governments could afford to build such a network. Additionally, this type of physical private networks inefficiently occupies network frequency, transmission, and other resources. Hence, the traditional way of building a private mobile network is costly and takes time. Compared to the huge investment and long-term commitment to build a physical private network, 5G end-to-end network slicing is provided by the operator’s public mobile network which shares all the expensive resources mentioned earlier.

The new B2B2C model enabled by SliceStore can stimulate a better end-user experience. For example, with the existing B2C model, an end-user who buys HD video service needs to buy HD video content from the video service provider and a data traffic packet from the operator respectively. If the quality of the video is bad, it is difficult for the end-user to find out who is responsible for it. In the B2B2C model, the video service provider can purchase a customized network slice, hence they are solely responsible for the end-to-end service experience and are able to charge the user only once. If the experience is not good, the end-user can simply switch to another video service provider.

The vertical industries are better at choosing the best quality and the most economical network connection/slice. Thus, the end-user no longer needs to worry about the network connection on business, but instead can focus on the end-to-end service experience alone. Just like online shopping with superior customer experiences today, customers can buy products and delivery service with just a single payment. These vertical industries should also include network connection services within their service content offerings and enable customers to purchase using a single payment.

In November 2019, China Mobile (Guangdong) partnered with ZTE to launch the SliceStore. Gamers enjoyed high-definition video games and smooth game control with just a single payment to Tencent Entertainment. They did not need to concern themselves with the network being used by Tencent nor the obscure technology (bandwidth, latency, etc.) behind it.

Essentially, network slicing is like VPN. Normally operators have a physical network for all the customers, not matter who you are. In the 4G stage, the operator must implement all kinds of terminals into one good network. This is the existing situation of the network. However, network slicing can provide VPN for all kinds of applications. For example, we can identify that autonomous driving in cars can use low latency and high reliability. Normally these kinds of network slicing have a higher priority compared to others. If we lose the package on the network slicing pertaining to autonomous driving, this could cause safety issues that will result in serious accidents.

On the other hand, for IOT terminals, you can also provide low economy network slicing for water meters or streetlights. You need an economical connection for these machines. Network slicing can be tailor made to your requirements to guarantee an unparalleled level of service. Network slicing can provide a better private service guaranteed to OTT and help them build up a real end to end service to the consumers. This is a good thing for the OTT and service providers. 

In terms of profit, how do you think these capabilities can contribute to a company’s revenue?

If we look at China today, vertical industries are already willing to implement network slicing. China Mobile launched three 5G private networks plan in July.

The first one is a fully software model. Software based models are a good thing because through its application of cloud technology, different slices can have different functions. These kinds of software are independent but use the same hardware, so it can guarantee the proper usage of applications based on its slice.

The second model uses part software and part hardware. The third level uses a fully hardware model for end to end. Of course, these 3 levels of network slicing have different costs. Generally, NFV/SDN-based software slicing is more economical, while hardware-based independent hard slicing is more independent, more secure, and provide better KPI guarantee.

As can be seen from public reports, many large enterprises have joined the 5G private network plan, and it expects that network slicing will bring in revenue this year.

Several issues pertaining to network slicing have been called into question when it comes to the progress of 5G; RAN-redesigning, scheduling issues, service assurance, just to name a few. What are your thoughts on this?

At present, the only technical limitation is the sharing and conflict of RAN resources between slices, RAN can use different frequency and priorities for different network slicing according to the 3GPP recommendation. The core network and bearer can be logically and physically isolated by using software slicing and hardware slicing. Network slicing should be deployed on a standalone network.

How do you think edge computing can be used within 5G network slicing for more optimum resource utilisation?

In most scenarios, MEC and slicing will be deployed together. Low-latency slicing is implemented through the edge computing capability. Edge computing is proposed by comparing cloud computing and is sometimes called fog computing. That is, the computing and storage capability is not located in a remote location like Alaska but will be deployed much closer to the user's geographical location. This in turn will provide a better response time (latency) and avoid the risk of long-distance data transmission.

5G itself also needs edge computing because some of the core network functions need to be running on the cloud and those functions should be distributed to the edge. In this way, when we introduce 5G, it is imperative that we introduce edge computing not only for other technologies but also for 5G itself. This is the strategy operators are employing now.

In this sense, why not take the extra step so you can sell edge computing to vertical industries? I genuinely believe this is also an opportunity for operators to introduce new revenue by selling edge computing resources.

What other technical challenges remain to be solved before we can make this a reality?

With the large-scale commercial deployment of 5G SA architecture in China, 5G network technologies including chips, terminals and systems have been successfully verified. However, the application of 5G capabilities in vertical industries still needs to be promoted. It is hard to imagine an industry that has not completed its digital transformation or is at least in the process of doing so.

In fact, ZTE has cooperated with more than 300 vertical industries and customized digital transformation solutions for many industries such as transportation, healthcare, mining, education, new media and so on. ZTE shares its digital capabilities that have been successfully applied in 5G technologies such as cloud, big data, AI and IoT to many vertical industries. Together with 5G, we believe that these digital technologies will be able to upgrade those traditional vertical industries.

Digital transformation will not only open new revenue sources for ZTE, but also promote the further popularization and development of 5G networks soon. 5G is going to connect everything, so you need to introduce 5G connection to vertical industries. However, this cannot be done to an industry which is not digitalized. That is why it is so important for digital transformation to happen now.