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Vodafone and Ericsson trial the best thing since sliced bread

Right now you only use networks in one big lump, but a collaboration between UK operator Vodafone and Swedish kit vendor Ericsson seeks to split it into manageable slices.

They completed a trial in a Vodafone lab, using Ericsson-built 5G Standalone containerised core architecture, which they claim was the first time 5G network slicing with on-demand quality of service control had been done in the UK. Apparently it took just 30 minutes to create a special slice of the network optimised for a VR use-case after it was first ‘ordered’.

“Network slicing is an incredibly valuable step forward,” said Andrea Dona, Chief Network Officer for Vodafone UK. “By segmenting our network, and customising different slices for different requirements, we can bring to life new ideas that would be impossible otherwise. When we configure our network to empower new services, industries like gaming, entertainment and healthcare can enter a new era. What might seem like science fiction is one step closer thanks to network slicing.”

“Network slicing will play a crucial role in enabling new and innovative 5G services for consumers and enterprises,” said Andrea Spaccapietra, VP Digital Services at Ericsson UK & Ireland. “With the tools to efficiently manage network resources and provide differentiated services with dedicated performance, leading network operators like Vodafone can enable new business model innovation and use cases across different sectors and unlock new revenue opportunities to realize the full potential of 5G.”

The industry has been banging on about network slicing for almost as long as it has 5G. As you can see from the canned quotes from the two Andreas above, they’re really counting on the arrival of commercially viable network slicing to inject some life into the current generation of mobile tech. Vodafone expects to get some customer proof-of-concept work done before the end of this year. Here’s a table showing the performance boost offered by the special slice over the boring old public internet.

Key Performance Metric Virtual reality network slice (controlled environment) Public internet
Download speed (Mbps) 260 49.41
Upload speed (Mbps) 16.5 8.17
Latency (milliseconds) 12.4 35
Jitter (milliseconds) 1.22

Vodafone UK got some hacks and analysts together in London yesterday to pre-announce this news, as well as offer a more general update on what they’re up to. Dona was joined by his equivalent on the UK IT team, Ahmed El Sayed, to build on the Group announcement from last October about how into IT, software and that sort of thing Vodafone is these days.

The presentation phase focused on Vodafone’s strategic repositioning in a more techie direction. Perhaps conscious of how laboured to the point of cliché terms like ‘techco’ and ‘DevOps’ have become, as telcos strive to free themselves of the ‘dumb pipe’ shackles, both men repeatedly stressed this group-wide cultural shift is more than just good PowerPoint and is actually happening in real life.

There was no update on the progress made on the vow to hire 7,000 software engineers but, reading between the lines, we got the impression Vodafone was seeking to communicate with the labour market via the assembled commentators that it should be no less attractive a destination for aspiring geeks than a Silicon Valley giant or internet startup. They acknowledged that wasn’t the case with Vodafone of old, but insisted things are very different now.

A lengthy Q&A phase bounced around from Open RAN, to IoT, to APIs. A common theme was openness and collaboration, with the two execs stressing that’s the only way network operators like Vodafone can hope to develop the kinds of working relationships they apparently need with the IT world. The open, unstructured nature of the conversation in the room seemed designed, in part, to symbolise that, and we commend Vodafone for its willingness to engage and update the commentariat in person.

The significant utility of, and demand for, network slicing remains unproven as far as we’re concerned. It seems like a cool idea on paper but how many use-cases (apart from the inevitable VR, which also still has plenty of question marks attached to it) really require it? Vodafone is gambling that the only way to find out is to make it, as well as other novel technologies such as OpenRAN, commercially available and see what, if anything, the market does with them.

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