Friday, August 10, 2018

Will Network Slicing Become a Substitute for Access Networks?

We often think of network slicing as a capability to be used by 5G networks to create virtual private networks all the way through the core of the network and sustained at the radio edges as well, so that VPN features flow through to end user devices.

In principle, though, network slicing will have to flow through fixed network edge devices as well (fiber to home and cable modem, for example).

Vodafone and Huawei have demonstrated network slicing over a fiber to home access network, for example.  

What network slicing could mean is “multi-tenant” use of a fixed network access facility. In other words, it should be possible for multiple independent users (enterprises) to manage their own networks over the one physical access link.

Also, at least in principle, some entities could consider co-investment in fiber to home facilities that share one physical link but are partitioned into multiple virtual connections. That would be an extension of the present practice in some countries of having one network services wholesaler and then any number of retail service providers operating over the single infrastructure.

Whether service providers in any particular market would consider such a move hinges on their perceptions of strategic advantage, network ownership and control, and the business model advantages.  

It might seem far fetched to expect U.S. cable operators, AT&T or Verizon to ever deliver their mission-critical retail apps over leased local access infrastructure. Smaller providers might reach different conclusions.

On the other hand, when network slicing gets to be nearly ubiquitous, the decision matrix could change, at the margin. Larger tier-one service providers operating their own big backbone networks, virtualized and with network slicing, might have little need to rely on third-party access facilities in region, or across their own mobile infrastructures.

Some argument might be made that a network slice makes sense out of the fixed network region, if and when the mobile network cannot itself do this. But those cases should ultimately be quite rare for the likes of Verizon and AT&T. It is not yet so clear whether such options will make more sense for Sprint, T-Mobile US or other mobile providers.

Fixed network providers operating out of region will have to look at the business case for buying a slice, versus building or leasing access.

The point is that access network strategy will have more variables as network slicing becomes a  commercial reality.

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