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Network Slicing explained

5G brings a quantum leap in speed and throughput of data to the network along with low latency and ultra reliability. Operators can use these advantages to provide a host of new services to customers, all using the same physical network. With network slicing they can create multiple virtual networks, or network ‘slices’, which can be used for distinct applications with specific requirements. Network slicing enables new revenue opportunities at scale through automation to drive profitable growth. 


Enabled by 5G

In previous generations – 2G, 3G, 4G – the end-to-end network provided the same service to all users. If a customer required a guaranteed provision for an application, e.g. for the emergency services, the only option would have been to create a new, physical network or to deploy a clunky VPN.

5G is changing that, with the introduction of Network Slicing. Built into the 5G standard as defined by 3GPP specifications, operators can create thousands of virtual, independent networks within the same physical network that connect from the device through to the application. Whether it’s connecting a handset to mobile broadband or a robot to an automation application, the network operator is able to guarantee service levels for the slice as if it were a distinct network. 

Communications Services Providers (CSPs) are investing in 5G, but they need to work out how to make a return. According to the telco trade body GSMA, by enabling them to separate lucrative and critical business traffic from general Internet traffic, Network Slicing will be worth USD 300 billion to operators by 2025. The bulk will come from enterprises such as manufacturing, logistics, and automotive. Services for consumers will also play a part, such as providing cloud gaming or delivering broadband using 5G fixed wireless networks as an alternative to fiber.

A network slice is equipment-vendor agnostic and can span across a radio network from vendor one, to the core from vendor two and so on. Operators can define the specific characteristics of a slice including speed, latency, reliability, and security. Take for example the fleet management industry, customers will require different slices for different functions. They may need a low latency and ultra reliable slice for traffic notification, whereas the slice for infotainment would require higher bandwidth but would have less need for low latency. 

Moreover, the creation and update of slices is dynamic and can be done in minutes with the aid of automation. If an accident happens in a crowded street, the network operator can spin up a network slice dedicated to first responders enabling them to use their push-to-talk radio application and drone video monitoring fleet over the same physical network being used by the general public, without concern for congestion caused by concerned passers-by trying to live stream the event on social media. 

End-to-End Network Slicing

Or a sports stadium might have slices for fans to upload selfies, another for security monitoring and another for the broadcast provider. Each would have different requirements and priorities, and functions to enable each slice would be distributed differently. The traffic in the security and broadcast slices will always get the guaranteed bandwith even if all fans celebrate a goal by trying to share their recorded video. The traffic from broadcast providers’ mobile cameras could point to local edge servers for application processing whilst the slice dedicated to fans would use servers in the central cloud.


Orchestrating and automating network slicing

Orchestration is instrumental to how the CSP exposes those rich capabilities within their networks as consumable services for their customers – both enterprises and end-consumers. After all, CSPs don’t sell their networks to customers in the same way that an airline does not sell it’s airplanes. They sell a service.

Orchestration sets the policies and methods that connections will be made through the network to deliver the commercial services with their related Service Level Agreements (SLAs). Then, when devices connect to the network, they will be attached to the appropriate network slice and they will receive the committed service that was commercially agreed.

Orchestration enables this to be done at scale. There is a ‘set-up’ phase of Orchestration when these service policies are arranged and then there is a ’run-time’ phase that keeps the network slices tuned to the committed service levels while supporting the variabilities of traffic, use, location, performance, etc.

In this sense, orchestration is the layer between all of the various network controllers and the commercial services offered to markets. Service orchestration is intent-based to enable Industry partners to request services in business terms to reduce friction in B2B commerce. Then the service orchestrator interprets that business intent into the complex settings needed within the network to satisfy the intent. Since 5G-era networks are virtualized, this means they are much more complex than traditional mobile networks – many more moving parts. But this is a good thing because virtualized networks are programmable to make them flexible so CSP can adapt their network to specific customer needs. This programmability is what opens all processes to automation. And automated orchestration is the key to a profitable network slicing business initiative.

Tools such as Nokia’s Digital Operations Centre orchestrate and automate the process meaning slices can be created and amended in minutes instead of hours or days if the slice was to be created manually.

Unique to Nokia: Network Slicing, now on 4G too

Network slicing has been defined and originally developed for 5G networks. Nokia has a patent-pending capability which also enables slicing within 4G networks. Initially lanched in February 2020,  the company continued expanding the capability with an announcment of the world’s first automated 4G/5G network slicing within RAN, transport and core domains including new network management, controller and orchestration capabilities in October 2020. Nokia is actively trialing this slicing solution with customers around the globe readying for commercial introduction in 2021.

Launch of 4G and 5G slicing

Nokia is the first to introduce 4G/5G end-to-end slicing solution for both 4G and 5G NR networks (NSA) and providing evolution path to 5G SA slicing.

Case study

A1 in Austria is deploying slicing for train operator ÖBB


Network slices enables operators to provide premium services to customers which can be brought online very quickly, offering business opportunities to new sectors to gain new revenues. Through a simple software upgrade, CSPs can introduce and deploy network slicing in their existing 4G/LTE networks as well as 5G networks as they are rolled out. Network slicing enables the most economical model to provide service differentiation and meeting end user Service Level Agreements.


Learn more:

Nokia Network Slicing products include:

Key terms:

  • Parts of the network
    • Radio Access Network (RAN).  The final link between the network and the phone
    • Transport.  The links between the different parts of the RAN (fronthaul and midhaul) and between the RAN and the Core (backhaul)
    • Core Network (Core). Controls the network.
  • 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) covers cellular telecommunications technologies, including radio access, core network and service capabilities, which provide a complete system description for mobile telecommunications
  • GSMA represents the interests of mobile operators worldwide, uniting more than 750 operators with almost 400 companies in the broader mobile ecosystem, including handset and device makers, software companies, equipment providers and internet companies, as well as organizations in adjacent industry sectors.

Technology explained, by Nokia

This new series of background briefings is produced to educate journalists and other commentators on the technology which connects the world. Only Nokia offers a comprehensive portfolio of network equipment, software, services and licensing opportunities across the globe. With our commitment to innovation, driven by the award-winning Nokia Bell Labs, we are a leader in the development and deployment of 5G networks. 


About Nokia

We create the technology to connect the world. Only Nokia offers a comprehensive portfolio of network equipment, software, services and licensing opportunities across the globe. With our commitment to innovation, driven by the award-winning Nokia Bell Labs, we are a leader in the development and deployment of 5G networks.

Our communications service provider customers support more than 6.4 billion subscriptions with our radio networks, and our enterprise customers have deployed over 1,300 industrial networks worldwide. Adhering to the highest ethical standards, we transform how people live, work and communicate. For our latest updates, please visit us online and follow us on Twitter @nokia.


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