Telco gear vendor ZTE made noise this week about its 5G network “Slicing Store” concept. They claimed the operator 3 Austria has demonstrated the first such store in Europe. ZTE has been talking up the idea for a while, having tested it with several operators as a wholesale solution they can provide to their own consumer and enterprise service arms, as well as to other market players.

The main attraction of 5G network slicing is the ability to offer customized private network slices to enterprises using common public infrastructure. Telcos have long had their fingers crossed that the B2B market will be the saviour of this next generation of mobile broadband access. They hope that the customizable possibilities of networking slicing–arriving around the same time that digital transformation is going fully mainstream across industries–will spur huge opportunities in the enterprise IoT space.

The promise of a 5G slicing store in the enterprise

ZTE’s announcement clearly said that 3 Austria has a 5G Slicing Store which provides customized network slices that offer just the right bandwidth, latency, throughput, or combination of the three for specific vertical use cases. By providing customized 5G network slices for verticals, 3 Austria can presumably prevent 5G from becoming another commodity B2C mobile broadband operation. While it promises in-depth integration between 5G and vertical industries by allowing the network requirements of each vertical to be individually met, precious few details were given in the vendor-driven announcement.

The argument has been that a given company’s (or industry’s) communication network requirements are not the same as other companies or industries. Therefore a general purpose private network solution won’t be a good match for anyone. While an autonomous car operator would need low latency, it wouldn’t necessarily need high throughput. Meanwhile, an IoT business would need massive access but not necessarily low latency. While consumers aren’t clamouring for specific latency or bandwidth guarantees, their streaming and gaming service providers can certainly benefit from fine-tuning those options to differentiate on customer experience—giving 5G network operators a platform for B2B2C services.

Finally, a commercial model

It was exciting to hear the news that 3 Austria was rolling out the service as part of an online marketplace. A place where business and consumer customers can select sector-specific features, define SLAs and KPIs (guaranteed bandwidth, maximum latency, etc.), and purchase private network slices activated immediately upon payment.  If the number of users increases or the KPI performance decreases, ZTE says, the system can automatically adjust its resources to maintain the required KPI. The marketplace concept helps bring the promise of enterprise 5G closer into focus, emphasizing both the customized aspect of network slicing and the consumption-oriented aspects of the technology.

Once a customer, the 5G slicing store solution invites enterprises to participate in the orchestration and life cycle management of their vertical network slice. In effect they co-manage the ongoing development of that particular slice (through real-time KPI monitoring to help fine-tune SLA definitions for their use case). That way, consumption is optimized based on their own business requirements, and the desired benefits—ranging from lowered costs to enhanced end-user experience—can then predictably be achieved.

Where’s the store?

The slicing store is based on the capabilities of supplier ZTE, which has been talking up the concept in its own whitepapers. Their 5G technology has been validated by winning commercial 5G contracts from 25 telcos around the world. 3 Austria has already rolled out 5G in parts of four cities and done relevant proofs of concept for a horizontal enterprise use case—driverless trucks—and a specialized vertical use case (a Bee-O-Meter solution for beekeepers). So, where’s the store? It’s not on the operator’s website. There’s no mention of a URL or pricing/availability details in the announcement itself.

Ah. There it is, in yet another press release from ZTE promoting a global operator event it has just held in Vienna, where it turns out the slicing store was actually a trade show demo. One of the applications even featured a smart bionic mechanical dog, equipped with a 5G device for data connection, showing potential application scenarios such as rescuing, security patrol, and home guarding.

Hurry up and wait

Despite the hype, then, 3 Austria’s 5G Slicing Store is not yet actually a thing. It does not give the operator much early mover advantage after all, and without more than a few niche use cases, it has not even defined the vertical industry slice templates the store is supposed to offer. For a brief moment there, it seemed clarity was about to emerge on the way forward for enterprise 5G. While the fog may have lifted slightly, vertical industries transforming their business models digitally will just have to wait a little while longer.

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