Exploring differentiated services with 5G networks
At the 2022 Singapore Grand Prix (GP), Singtel became the world’s first service provider to deploy 5G network slicing at a major sporting event – and demonstrated the commercial opportunities of differentiated connectivity services.
- Supported by network slicing, racing fans at the Singapore GP enjoyed high-quality video streams, taking their event experience to the next level.
- A consumer service based on 5G network slicing must be appealing, valuable and differentiated with clear benefits compared to a 4G service.
- Network slicing enables the introduction of new business models for different market segments.
Singapore is an island country, similar in size to New York City, with a population of around 6 million people. In July 2022, it became the first country in the world to be fully covered (95 percent) by 5G standalone (SA).
The Singaporean government’s Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA)1 is driving a national digital transformation plan, which emphasizes the importance of a world-class 5G infrastructure to enable innovative new use cases and transform industries. Among the initiatives are new policies to encourage and foster collaboration between industry players. Examples of such IMDA initiatives include partnering with:
- Building and Construction Authority (BCA) to develop a 5G-enabled Building Information Modeling (BIM) system that will improve productivity and safety in the construction industry
- Land Transport Authority (LTA) to explore the use of 5G in autonomous vehicle technology
- Energy Market Authority (EMA) to investigate the potential of 5G in smart grid technology
- a multinational automotive manufacturer deploying 5G-enabled robots that will help transport vehicle-manufacturing materials for the development of Singapore’s first build-to-order (BTO) electric vehicle (EV) factory
- the healthcare sector as a key area for 5G implementation, with potential applications including remote healthcare monitoring and telemedicine
Singtel has launched a 5G SA network with an aim to support new digital growth opportunities within consumer, enterprise and public sector segments. Its 5G strategy includes a network evolution journey to a fully automated network with intelligent orchestration capabilities, enabling consumers and enterprises to subscribe on-demand to multiple products, services or use cases.
Deploying nationwide 5G SA coverage
In May 2021, Singtel launched the world’s first nationwide 5G SA network, despite the network rollout challenges at the time due to the pandemic. It has currently achieved island-wide coverage of over 95 percent with 3.5 GHz TDD and 2.1 GHz spectrum bands. As of March 2023, more than 760,000 subscribers had signed up for 5G subscriptions. In terms of the top 10 most used applications, the behavior of 4G and 5G subscribers is largely similar with strong data usage across social media and video applications. This is expected to change as new applications that leverage 5G, such as AR and VR, become more prevalent.
However, Singtel is already seeing significantly higher data consumption among 5G customers. This is partly attributed to consumers being able to experience higher-quality video and richer media over its 5G network, contributing to a better customer experience.
Challenges of implementing 5G in Singapore
Singtel considers extensive 5G SA coverage, combined with network slicing capabilities, to be key for unlocking new customer values. An essential part of its 5G SA deployment strategy includes extensive coverage for more than 700 indoor locations, in underground sites and along underground train lines where traffic demand is substantial. However, considering most of Singapore’s geography consists of dense urban areas, ensuring coverage for high-rise buildings and underground areas has been a significant challenge.
The main challenges Singtel had to overcome were:
- Line-of-sight obstruction: Obstacles such as walls, floors and other structures present a significant challenge as they can cause signal blockages, leading to poor coverage.
- Signal attenuation: High-rise buildings and underground areas often contain materials that absorb or reflect 5G signals, causing signal attenuation.
- Limited space: High-rise buildings and underground areas often have limited space, making it challenging to install 5G antennas or small cells.
- High-density areas: Singapore is a high-density city, prone to congestion, resulting in poorer customer experience.
- High costs: Deploying 5G infrastructure in high-rise buildings and underground areas can be costly due to the complex and challenging nature of the installation process.
To overcome these challenges, fundamental radio planning designs need to be sound, including the deployment of the right number of cell sites to ensure 5G coverage and use of all the available 5G spectrum bands in an optimal manner. With strong 5G traffic growth, the network needs to be able to handle demanding use cases and still be capable of serving casual users with internet traffic. Network technologies such as slicing, radio resource partitioning2 and quality of service (QoS) features are increasingly important for managing different use cases and traffic demands efficiently.
This article was written in collaboration with Singtel, a leading communications and digital services provider in Singapore aiming to capture untapped digital growth in the 5G era.
Network slicing opens new opportunities
5G network slicing enables multiple independent logical networks to exist on the same physical network infrastructure. Each slice serves as an isolated end-to-end network accommodating different application requirements for security, reliability and performance. It enables service providers to go from providing one-size-fits-all wireless connectivity to services and customer-adapted network slices for specific use cases. As the capabilities of 5G networks evolve, slices will progress from being static (preconfigured) with basic functionality to being dynamically created, deployed and modified as customer needs change (on-demand). The latter will enable on-time and fast delivery of slices with automated deployment and operations. For service providers, slice observability, orchestration, automation and service level agreement (SLA)-based charging are critical functionalities to both manage and monetize network slices.
Network slicing will play an instrumental role in supporting different QoS and service-based connectivity offerings. For most communications service providers, network slicing is currently about trialing, exploring and learning from such deployments.
Differentiating consumer offerings with network slicing
During 2022, Singtel applied a test-and-learn approach to ensure that network slicing was correctly implemented. Two excellent test case opportunities were the Singapore GP in October and the World Cup football tournament in December.
Singtel was the first service provider in the world to use radio resource partitioning and deliver end-to-end network slicing in a live 5G SA network for the Singapore GP. More than 300,000 spectators attended the event in the Marina Bay area, concentrated in small areas around the racetrack. Live streams of sports typically experience lag, jitter and other disturbances in busy and congested radio environments, which has a negative impact on the viewing experience. Given that F1 cars can reach speeds of more than 300 km/h, fans in attendance will want ways to watch the race around the whole F1 circuit. This presented an excellent opportunity to test the capabilities of 5G network slicing, where a dedicated slice of Singtel’s network was reserved for subscribers of Sports Plus, a service on Singtel’s video streaming platform (CAST). The slice was designed and configured end-to-end in the core, transport, and radio networks to enable higher throughput and consistent low latency. In addition, radio sites were allocated a radio resource partition to provide protection for radio resources in the event area.
Premium subscribers at the Singapore GP enjoyed 437 Mbps on average due to network slicing.
Figure 26: Singtel’s view on network slicing use cases for the near to mid term
|Segment||1–2 years||2–4 years|
|Consumer||Individual customized slices||Autonomous vehicles|
|Smart home devices and appliances||Remote work and telecommuting|
|Enterprise||Logistics and transportation||Smart cities|
|Smart factories and industrial IoT||Remote training and education|
|Public sector||Public safety and emergency||Smart energy grids|
|Smart transportation infrastructure||Smart water management|
|Public Wi-Fi networks|
5G subscribers who purchased CAST Sports Plus could stream content by signing up to this package for SGD 9.90 during the race weekend and enjoy an excellent video experience everywhere along the racetrack area, compared to 4G subscribers. Users with a 4G subscription experienced lower video quality, due to low downlink throughput (on average 4.2 Mbps) because of high traffic congestion, while 5G premium package subscribers experienced a full HD-quality stream due to a high downlink throughput (on average 437 Mbps). The value for the 5G network slicing users was the assurance of seamless video streaming under radio resource constraints.
The 5G network slicing was a “teaser” for Singtel to learn how to implement a network slice with the right parameter settings and radio resource management for this specific use case. Customers were not charged extra for the network slicing capabilities. The network slices were manually preconfigured, with efforts being put into ensuring they were created homogeneously in each tracking area. Going forward, this process will be automated to increase efficiency and enable scaling. Network slice orchestration will be an integral aspect of this process, providing network slice management, including planning, lifecycle management and configuration. Another important aspect will be to implement slice observability solutions to provide real-time visibility into slice performance so that changes can be made on the fly in response to changes in traffic patterns.
In a similar way, the expansion of 5G SA network slicing and radio resource partitioning across all of Singapore made it possible to offer full HD video streaming of World Cup football matches for 5G subscribers with a Singtel TV plan.
Learnings from the first network slicing implementations
By applying a test-and-learn approach, Singtel was able to better understand the behavior of network slicing and radio resource partition mechanisms. This will be relied on when designing the 5G network to meet more demanding use cases from both consumers and enterprises. It is also important to have worked out a good traffic forecast for the “slicing area” and to not under-dimension for both slice and non-slice users. There should be a distinct difference in experience for users of the generic service compared to users of the premium service enabled by network slicing. The implementation of radio resource partitioning in the live 5G network meant that engineers were better able to understand the behavior of the feature. For example, using radio partitioning for generic users as well as premium users resulted in unexpected results in certain scenarios. Network slicing design was subsequently amended based on insights from the event. Another learning is the importance of having seamless service provisioning, making it easy and convenient for customers to subscribe to a service and immediately enjoy it.
Based on the Singapore GP experience, Singtel has recognized the business potential of deploying network slices to support new use cases in other geographically limited areas, such as shopping districts, convention centers, stadiums, school campuses, factories, airports and mines. Network slicing-based services could also be dynamically created and deployed in these limited geographical areas, fulfilling a specific need at the time it is required. In those areas, a range of customer segments that would benefit from differentiated service offerings could be identified by leveraging customer and market research and insights.
Opportunities for commercializing network slicing
Singtel aims to understand how to capture enterprise business requirements through market research and surveys, in order to then customize slice capabilities for current use and to build service evolution maps for the future. As new use cases and business models evolve, a better understanding will emerge of what 5G performance levels different customer segments prefer. It is therefore important to build a network slicing foundation that scales with new customer insights.
Network slicing enables the introduction of new business models for different market segments, see Figure 27.
New services that can be offered include customized subscriptions for specific services and geolocation-based subscriptions to satisfy specific customer needs, as below.
Figure 27: Market segment opportunities presented by network slicing
Consumers can be offered a range of service plans with different attributes, for example an economy service plan (best-effort quality), a gaming service plan (QoS on-demand, guaranteed latency level) or a performance-based premium service plan (guaranteed high-quality video and audio).
Enterprises can be offered a range of performance-based service plans, which may be applied to different applications and tools provided to their employees. Industrial enterprises can utilize different slices for various productivity- or process-oriented internal operations.
Service providers could offer network slicing-based connectivity services to a variety of customers in different market segments, who in turn use them to realize use cases for their customers.
- logistics management/port operations to ensure the service assurance for the operation of automated guided vehicles (AGV) remotely via 5G
- surveillance/security to ensure video feeds continually transmit via 5G with reliable upload speeds
- medical applications to ensure remote diagnostics can be performed via a stable 5G connection
- app-based to differentiate user experience through different application subscriptions
- enhanced security for subscribers through network slicing
- priority access (location/geographical based) to provide differentiated user experiences by location, for example at gaming hotspots
Singtel considers security slices to be one of the early promising enterprise use cases. Figure 26 shows Singtel’s view on network slicing use cases for the near to mid term.
Learnings from network slicing implementation
Network slicing is the starting point for traffic segregation in the connectivity layer. It will evolve into user equipment route selection priority (URSP) which enables dynamic slicing where traffic can be segregated by user application in the device itself. Close cooperation with device manufacturers is required to shape URSP’s capabilities to market requirements.
The main go-to-market challenge for 5G network slicing for the consumer segment is creating appealing and valuable services that are differentiated from the current 4G offering. 5G SA and network slicing brings new capabilities, such as data prioritization, faster speeds and lower latency. However, these capabilities will require purposeful use cases with clear value propositions to drive consumer adoption. Singtel is constantly working to identify potential 5G use cases and migrating its non-5G customer base to 5G subscriptions so that they can enjoy the full benefits of 5G SA and network slicing-based services.
When designing network slices, the user experiences of prioritized and normal services need to be balanced within available network resources. For crowded events, a network slice with a QoS guarantee also has to function in a high radio noise environment. Therefore, an accurate forecast of traffic demands by users is required to balance resource allocation between priority and non-priority services. As customers expect their service experience quality to be premium, partnerships with over-the-top (OTT) service providers will be important to ensure the service is prioritized end to end.
More advanced network and service orchestration capabilities need to be implemented as demand for network slices increases. Service assurance will be important, especially for industries where mission-critical operations will require well-defined SLAs.
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