Ericsson Unveils Connectivity Boost App

New service offers network slicing for consumers and enterprise

Network slicing has been a topic bandied about by the mobile industry for years — but two recent announcements suggest commercial momentum is finally picking up.

Last week, Ericsson unveiled a new service for operators enabling them to offer customers a temporary boost to the speed and reliability of a mobile service. The Dynamic End-user Boost caught my eye for two reasons: firstly, it puts control in the hands of end-users rather than the mobile operator; secondly, it’ll be made available to consumers as well as enterprise customers. Until now, most of the network slicing discussion has focussed on applications such as remote healthcare, smart factories and autonomous vehicles.

Ericsson says the “world-first” solution will enable customers to bolster 4G or 5G connectivity whenever they like through an app available on any smartphone. As a white-label service, operators can decide how they market it to customers and define their own connectivity parameters.

Operators can also implement their own means of payment. One approach could be to offer a monthly subscription with a set amount of time, including the option to top up when running low. Another is simply to deploy a pay-per-use model.

Martin Zander, head of One Network Solutions at Ericsson, explained to me that the service has many potential uses. For example, students or young people who may have a limited budget could temporarily upgrade a basic mobile plan if needed, avoiding having to make a longer-term commitment. This demographic may be particularly well-suited, as it’s becoming used to making micro-payments and increasingly demands flexible services.

Another consumer use — watching an 8K movie on the go or at a busy location — feels much more niche and would only have limited appeal on the small screen of a smartphone.

Opportunities are likely to be more plentiful in enterprise. One idea Mr Zander and I discussed was using a laptop for an important video call or to upload files without relying on public Wi-Fi. The bolster would not only improve the quality of connection, but also guarantee security. But I believe it’s the deployment of standalone 5G networks — which should become prevalent in about 2023 — that will prove the catalyst for a host of new opportunities.

For operators, the service provides an opportunity to boost customers’ average spending and to stand out from rivals by being early (or first) to market it. Hong Kong operator SmarTone is Ericsson’s first named customer; it’s expected to launch in the second quarter of 2022. Other providers are set to be announced in the coming months.

Mr Zander has no concerns that the service could fall foul of Net neutrality regulation. This is because it’s not offering paid-for prioritization embedded in a specific service, such as Netflix or Zoom. Instead, it’s up to the customer which application they wish to deploy the connectivity boost for.

Ericsson is also the lead partner for Vodafone UK’s 5G network slicing trial at its Newbury headquarters, announced to analysts at a recent network briefing. The operator’s chief network officer Andrea Dona said it had used a tailored slice to support a virtual reality deployment in a retail store in just 30 minutes. It offered a guaranteed download speed of 260 Mbps and latency at 12.4 milliseconds.

Mr Dona said that network slices can be tailored to a range of variables — including geographical location, download and upload speeds, latency, capacity and security. This can open a host of opportunities in areas such as gaming, in-venue experiences, healthcare, autonomous vehicles and remote broadcasting.

But evolving Net neutrality regulation is casting a shadow of doubt. The legislation is currently under review by Ofcom, and as it stands, network slicing doesn’t conform with the principles of an open Internet.

Mr Dona said he’s optimistic that regulatory change would give the green light to the much-vaunted concept. He explained that Vodafone has proposed a concept of “zones” to Ofcom dependent on different types of device, such as smartphones, Internet of things and fixed wireless access products. As each category of device operates in a different environment, different zones could be subject to different rules, creating a level playing field.

It’s encouraging to hear that network slicing is finally moving beyond the PowerPoint presentation phase. But regulatory challenges could ultimately present as much a hurdle to adoption as implementing the technology itself.