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The way forward for 5G – Network slicing and industry ecosystems?

While 5G advances continue apace, both in technical terms and eagerly-awaited standards and specifications, the industry is still struggling to find genuine use cases and business models that will offer something different to 3G and 4G, and make 5G financially viable.

One particularly promising area, however, is that of ‘network slicing’, which in turn could create ‘dedicated bandwidth’ to support industry-specific applications and services, from high-definition media consumption to smart transportation and cities, and virtual healthcare.

Network-slicing techniques span core and access network technologies that allow operators to use 5G networks to support critical infrastructure and bandwidth that is not impeded by interference, traffic prioritisation or poor quality of service.

In essence, network slicing allows operators to build intimate network-oriented collaboration with enterprises or content providers that have distinctive networking requirements, which might be low priority, high volume connectivity for basic IoT applications right through to mission-critical, high bandwidth connectivity for smart transportation.

So, for example, a media content provider could partner with MNOs to ensure that premium consumers always have access to dedicated bandwidth to provide guaranteed quality of experience, in turn breeding customer loyalty, and reducing churn. Likewise, critical applications such as automated vehicles require absolute connectivity assurances.

Industry ecosystems

But in order for this to work, operators will need to develop industry ecosystems or partnerships with enterprises that not only shares the risk, but enables the early co-design of dedicated network requirements that ultimately will help to guarantee success for all parties.

A recent paper from Arthur D Little backs up this assumption. It notes that in order to address certain segments of the market, enterprises and service providers will need to operate as industrial clusters or ecosystems, for example, transportation, agriculture, healthcare, and so on. Each requires their own sets of rules, infrastructure, communication and enabling technologies bound by a common value chain.

Some operators are already doing this. For example, Vodafone Global Enterprise is working with corporate entities to leverage 5G technologies that give its corporate clients not just higher speeds and reliability, but also the ability to develop specific solutions for integrated supply chains, machine-to-machine and various industrial applications supported by big data analytics. It means that Vodafone is moving away from plain connectivity to providing industry-specific solutions.

In addition, it’s already working with Hitachi to develop an IoT-based smart-train system, whereby all Hitachi’s trains are part of a dedicated, global IoT network provided by Vodafone to enable next-generation public transportation, which could dynamically manage passenger load, share information, detailed telemetry, and statistical analysis about trains and conditions in real time, all of which is centrally monitored and proactively managed.

Smart events, smart cities

Likewise, KT in Korea is developing a 5G ecosystem for the upcoming

2018 Winter Olympics in Korea. Stadiums and Olympics locations will be connected on a dedicated 5G platform that will allow multiple broadcasters, athletes, users and sponsors to plug and provide or consume services, such as 360-degree virtual-reality view of key events, multi-view streaming and videos, as well as a 5G autonomous bus for transportation.

Meanwhile, Telecom Italia is working with the city of Turin on a 5G project to roll out next-generation communication networks and hosting services such as public security, public transportation and information services within a smart-city framework.

Of course, smart city projects can be designed within 3G and 4G environments, but 5G offers more advanced, and unique, use cases, such as city-wide mobility solutions for autonomous vehicles to be realised.

Such business models have yet to be proven, but it already it appears that many operators and service providers consider this to be the way forward. By offering 5G infrastructure-as-a-service, and sharing both the risk and cost of developing dedicated 5G platforms with industry partners and consumers (of the platform), it at least seems to offer the most promising solution to the ‘5G use case conundrum’ that we have seen so far. Watch this space.

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