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5G ‘network slicing’ to guarantee spectrum for key utilities and emergency services

Image credit: deutsche telekom

With the first version of the 5G specification expected to be finalised at the beginning of next year, the key applications of the new mobile networks are starting to take shape.

‘Network slicing’ is one such application that will grant key utilities and industries a guaranteed chunk of the 5G network in order to ensure that critical elements that rely on a consistent internet connection are not impacted by high data usage from other nearby users.

Most smartphone users at one time or another have experienced extremely slow or patchy internet connections over 3G and 4G resulting from an unusually large influx of users in the local area, for example at large sporting or music events.

But with Internet of Things (IoT) devices being increasingly incorporated into industrial applications, many of which will soon be 5G-enabled, these temporary network issues could cause havoc for factories or utility companies.

Driverless cars, which are expected to take to the roads in the next few years, will also make use of 5G networks in order to connect to each other and the road infrastructure around them.

“We shouldn’t get fixated on just the consumer, broadband and smartphones benefits because there are some very significant elements that 5G will deliver for us,” said Ben Timmons, senior director at Qualcomm.

Qualcomm is currently preparing early versions of the 5G specification and producing the 5G modems that will enter smartphones and other devices from 2019 onwards.

“In terms of massive IoT, 5G gives us the ability to connect enormous numbers of low-power, efficient devices,” Timmons said.

“It also useful for ‘mission critical’ applications as well: all the things like autonomous vehicles and remote surgery, management of drones, industrial management.

“There’s a lot of wireless communication in complex industrial plants already, but it’s pretty much all proprietary. As a result it’s quite expensive to buy and maintain.

“5G is going to be able to do all of that at scale with a degree of efficiency that no proprietary technology can do. The element of control that industrial enterprises always want, such as sensitive control capabilities, this can all be done over 5G as well.

“For example, if you’re running a nuclear reprocessing plant you’re not going to want to share that technology with a guy downloading video on his smartphone.”

Network slicing effectively allows companies to buy (at a significant cost of course) an entirely private 5G network for themselves with a guaranteed latency and capacity that will not be affected by other users.

Timmons admitted that while this functionality isn’t in the first release of the 5G standard, later versions should include it.

“V2X (vehicle-to-everything) is the best example of that at the moment,” Timmons said. “[Autonomous] cars will be able to communicate with each other and the infrastructure, such as red lights or road works.

“We’re well on the road now to delivering this capability.  We announced in recent weeks our first V2X chipset, based on an existing Qualcomm modem.”

He also speculated that eventually it may be possible for companies to bargain cheaper 5G connectivity with the network operators and in return they would not receive the guaranteed connection quality that network slicing allows. This is similar to how some industries pay less for their electricity in return for having an interrupted supply at peak hours.

‘Puncturing’ is another facet of 5G that allows security or emergency services to access the bandwidth available in private network slices during disasters or other emergency situations.

This could be of great benefit to the UK’s emergency services which have been stuck using their ageing 2G network, Airwave, while an expensive replacement is installed.

Dubbed ESN, the new network will only be available to those working for the emergency services, and is costing taxpayers £1.2bn to set up and won’t be installed until 2019 at the earliest. 

Network slicing would negate the need to build such a complex and expensive infrastructure project as emergency services could just silo a section of commercially available 5G networks with guaranteed latency and bandwidth.

Earlier this year E&T looked at all of the potential uses and benefits that the nascent 5G standard will bring that 4G networks are not capable of.

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