What does 2020 have in store for 5G?

This last year, we finally saw the launch of the first 5G mobile networks around the globe, but we still have a long way to go before 5G truly hits the mainstream. I believe 2020 will be another year of major launches as more mobile operators launch 5G services along with the expansion and fine-tuning of existing 5G networks. 
In the near term what we’re mostly seeing is operators using 5G to provide enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) or delivering fixed wireless access services to new or previously underserved markets. Many operators are maximizing their current investment in 4G infrastructure to deliver more data and faster speeds by utilizing non-standalone 5G. But 2020 marks a key turning point for phase two, as operators look to bring on new services while continuing the immense investment into 5G infrastructure, spectrum and 5G new radio to deliver next-generation 5G services.
That said, we are seeing carriers take a far more cautious and strategic approach to their 5G network investments, more than any other generation to date. Most are doing their due diligence by researching and analysing the technology they will need to remain competitive in the age of 5G. 
Where do you see the strategic plan for 5G evolving in the near future?
We’ll see a gradual uptick in consumer 5G services on the fixed and mobile side, however, the overall industry will continue to grapple with finding the overall 5G business case that provides the best return on its 5G investment.
Most operators are being wise and taking it slowly, a frankly justifiable approach, since hastiness in the face of 5G really means being careless with investments. Slow and steady may seem like the only way to go for carriers who are still questioning the best strategy to recoup their network investments. But expect some of the larger global operators to expand and explore 5G use-cases beyond eMBB. 
One particular use-case that seems a likely path to 5G profitability is real-time video services. Real-time video requires ultra-reliable, low-latency communication (uRLLC), one of several different types of use cases supported by 5G. There are two prime examples of real-time video in action – cloud gaming and remote surgery. Both are currently being served by dedicated connections or local implementations, often at exorbitant rates. 
That said, providing the assured, real-time capabilities required is not simple. Especially since current core and transport networks cannot guarantee the SLAs required by uRLLC type services. Transitioning the transport network to accommodate network slicing will help. 
When planning for the 5G world, building separate networks for each type of service is just not viable. Network architects and organizations (IETF, ITP, and others) have come up with a solution in the form of network slicing – an architectural concept that allows the cutting of one physical infrastructure into multiple virtual networks. Each slice is then customized to meet the specific needs of the applications, services and resources that need to run over it. Most carriers are exploring a network slicing strategy with 5G in mind, but not all slicing is made equal. 
What are some things carriers must do now to advance 5G?
As networks go online and consumer interest picks up, the increase in traffic will spark more appetite to develop additional services. Network slicing will increasingly become a priority investment for carriers who are hungry to recoup their 5G investments. 
Unlike past mobile network evolutions, the transformation to 5G will involve a plurality of enhancements to support not only faster mobile broadband, but also enable new services requiring massive IoT support and mission-critical, latency and reliability. And the only way to manage such a diverse set of use-cases and network performance criteria is network slicing. 
Although network slicing will involve the allocation of physical and virtual, mobile-dedicated resources like the RAN and the next-generation packet core, slicing will also require the use of mobile transport services to segment the traffic and bind the sliced userplane and elements together. 
Service providers will need a rich set of IP and optical tools from an experienced mobile transport provider such as ECI to meet the diverse 5G networking requirements, and a software control suite with open, programmable interfaces to dynamically and automatically manage transport slices and ease integration across domains and with higher order software functions.
How important is network slicing in driving the 5G rollout?
Network slicing is an extremely important component in building the 5G business case, which as I mentioned, has otherwise been weak. We are still in the stage of 5G where network slicing won’t “make or break” carriers’ networks in the next year, but I argue it’s still one part of the 5G evolution that carriers can confidently bet on.
There are two major flavors of network slicing – hard and soft. Hard slicing refers to the provisioning of resources in such a way that they are dedicated to a specific network slicing instance. Soft slicing refers to the provisioning of resources in such a way that the slices are separated so that they do not interfere, on average, with each other. However, they can interact dynamically, which means that services may compete for certain resources at specific times. In other words, ‘soft slicing’ promises delivering on SLAs on average, while ‘hard slicing’ dedicates fixed resources to specific services or customers.
To make things even more complicated, there are a variety of technologies which can be used for achieving hard and soft slicing. For some of you on the packet side of the house, soft slicing is a mere extension of statistical multiplexing paradigms. And for the most part, statistical multiplexing is very efficient when there are no QoS guarantees required or when they are soft. Trouble arises when we need to guarantee with a high degree of precision. 
Unfortunately, today’s packet network elements are not capable of hard slicing. This means that to incorporate hard slicing, most carriers will need to upgrade their networks – in many cases ripping and replacing network elements. That is why we suggest using each new upgrade or new overlay as an opportunity to incorporate hard slicing capable equipment. 
When slicing is dynamic in nature, service providers will be able to offer premium services on the fly to a wide range of audiences. For the first time, consumers will be able to enjoy premium performance at an economical rate, and service providers will benefit. The limited nature of uRLLC services (i.e. for the length of a game/match or a surgery) makes this reasonable.
What kind of 5G services does network slicing enable?
There won’t be one, single all-redeeming application or use-case for network slicing, but instead network slicing will enable service providers to cost effectively support a wide range of services on the same infrastructure. Beyond real-time video, there are several other use cases where network slicing will help carriers realize new revenue streams and deliver on SLAs.
There is an entire realm of low latency, high bandwidth, high density services that can be fuelled by 5G – AR and VR, smart vehicles and transport, enhanced enterprise services, critical services and infrastructure control, advanced IoT and IIoT services, and more. Some of these may be realized in the next few years, while others (like autonomous vehicles) will take longer. 
Network slicing enables services beyond just want carriers can provide today or in a few years. By unlocking the limits of delivery, an entirely new crop of services can be realized and brought to market. Regardless of whether carriers know today whether they need network slicing or which slicing technologies to implement, this is an area they must test and trial.