The idea of a private, dedicated cellular network has been around for a while. With the advent of 5G, that has idea has not only become a reality, but has taken off. On Monday, T-Mobile Chief Technology Officer John Saw talked about how the Un-carrier has taken a leadership position in the area.
The technology is called “network slicing,” and as its name implies, it allows networks to carve out a slither of of radio airwaves reserved for a dedicated connection.
This is largely to help business or big events where it makes sense to have a dedicated network, allowing for a guaranteed level of speed and reliability. Saw pointed to last month’s Las Vegas Grand Prix as the latest example. T-Mobile set up a private network to connect 230 concession terminals at the venue to their back-end systems. The result, according to Saw, were consumers buying snacks and drinks without any hiccups through the race.
“This was the largest deployment of network slicing in the U.S. ever trusted to support such a high level of financial activity,” he said. “While payment processing is not data intensive, it does require very high reliability so slicing was the perfect solution to create network performance characteristics customized for the unique needs of LVGP.”
For consumers, it meant the network handling all of that data is partitioned off from the public network, which means a T-Mobile phone isn’t competing with the venue’s payment system for cellular coverage.
This is just the start of 5G private networks. Read on to learn more about the technology.
When did network slicing appear?
The idea of partitioning off a bit of the network for a dedicated purpose came with the introduction of 5G. The ability to flexibility manage the network and slice off parts was a key innovation in the fifth-generation of wireless technology.
How come I’ve never heard of it?
Unless you’re in the wireless industry or work logistics for a company, chances are this is a foreign term for you. That’s because the big wireless carriers have largely offered this to business customers. The idea is these warehouses, factories or other office spaces would get dedicated spectrum to ensure a certain quality of coverage. The wireless connection could even be tuned to run faster or slower based on the need, with factories running automated equipment likely needing higher bandwidth connectivity vs. a standard office.
Is T-Mobile the only one offering this?
No, T-Mobile is just one of a myriad of companies offering private networks. AT&T and Verizon are the other big players, but there are a number of smaller companies utilizing so-called shared spectrum to build these private networks, according to Digital Global Systems, which offer the tools to assess how these types of connections work in different places.
“The manufacturing plant of today has changed completely,” said Alan Pritchard, a business development executive for Digital Global Systems, in an interview in August. “None of the plants are wired with fiber. They want the whole thing to be wireless.”
Saw on Monday took the opportunity to make the point that T-Mobile has a leadership position in this area.
Was the Las Vegas Grand Prix the first example of network slicing?
No, T-Mobile in August talked about a temporary dedicated network was set up remotely to support the Red Bull Cliff Diving challenges, with the intention of being torn down later. That was the first temporary setup, although there have been a lot of networks set up to be run on a permanent facility.
Why couldn’t Red Bull or the Grand Prix just use the standard T-Mobile network?
The payments network at the Grand Prix and video production and the transferring of high-resolution feeds at the Red Bull event takes tremendous uplink and downlink speeds. If they ran on the public T-Mobile network, they would monopolize the capacity and kill the connection for every T-Mobile subscriber in the area. Saw noted that the Red Bull network was running at uplink speeds of 276 Mbps, and the Grand Prix event saw 213 terabytes of data consumed.
A private network sounds great. Where do I get one?
Sorry, this isn’t a service that consumers can sign up for. This is typically a business-grade offering.
Okay, but how does this affect me?
Network slicing is dedicated to businesses right now, but the carriers are looking at specific applications. One of the big killer apps that has long been touted is autonomous driving. A wireless company could set up specific radios with dedicated spectrum running into a network of self-driving cars, allowing them to talk with each in real time to better avoid accidents.
“Did you see what happened to a bunch of robo-taxis in San Francisco earlier this month? They caused a traffic jam when the wireless network supporting them had issues – largely because of the increased data usage at a nearby concert,” Saw said in August. “With network slicing, we can work with communities to make key infrastructure and transportation networks more reliable, helping to prevent something like that from happening again.”
Any other applications?
You can see other applications for dedicated spectrum usage such as virtual reality or augmented reality experiences, which take huge amounts of bandwidth. AR systems like Microsoft’s HoloLens or Apple Vision Pro headsets could benefit greatly from these kinds of connections.
On Monday, Saw talked about a video calling beta program, with developers testing the use of network slicing to guarantee coverage for video calling apps, which could mean sharper, clearer, and better sounding video chats, although that’ll likely be found in areas like hospitals or doctors’ offices.
This is really just the start of networking slicing. The future will see more kinds of companies using a broad array of spectrum, and not just the dedicated airwaves that companies like T-Mobile and Verizon pay a fortune for the exclusive rights to. There are frequencies like the Citizens Broadband Radio Service band that has multiple parties using it, including one crypto-powered 5G plan. That means networking slicing and the ability to partition off bits of the airwaves for specific use will be more critical over time.
“Sharing is the mechanism as time goes by,” Global Digital Systems CEO Armando Montalvo said in an interview in August.