Feature by Andrea Dona, Chief Network Officer, Vodafone UK
Whatever way you slice it, connectivity holds the key to innovation for emergency services.
It would be fair to say that 5G has so far been marketed as little more than faster speeds on your mobile. Most 5G promotion has focused on consumerising the technology and been dramatically simplified down to the most straightforward benefit.
However, 5G is a very different technology to its predecessors. Where 4G focused on connecting people to the internet, 5G has been designed to go beyond this, with the capability to connect vast amounts of ‘things’, as well as people.
And there’s another fundamental difference in the way 5G is designed, enabling customisable capabilities and experiences that have simply not been possible before. A 5G feature called ‘network slicing’ is set to enable the biggest shift in the role that mobile networks play in the healthcare industry, especially when it comes to emergency response.
To slice or not to slice, what is the use case?
While a 4G network will create a largely homogenous connectivity experience, treating every connection the same way, and sharing network capacity equally, network slicing enables 5G to offer a different mix of capabilities to meet all these diverse requirements at the same time.
Network slicing allows the creation of multiple virtual networks on the same physical equipment. Most importantly, these virtual networks are isolated from each other, which means one cannot impact the performance of another.
Parameters on each network slice can be changed, updated or ripped out and replaced, without affecting the integrity of other applications running on a different slice.
This means you could have a slice of the network which is reserved for the public internet (this would connect all our smartphones), as well as separate slices for more specialist applications. In the healthcare industry, this enables a very important innovation that would not be otherwise possible – the Connected Ambulance.
Enabling a remote consultation room
This is a radical change of model compared to current implementations. With network slicing, 5G is able to adapt connectivity capabilities to the use case, rather than us having to adapt the use case because of connectivity limitations.
Without this new capability, the Connected Ambulance would not be possible.
To recap, the Connected Ambulance is a concept of a remote consultation room enabled by connectivity. Emergency responders would be supported by experts remotely as they deal with patients either on-site or on the way to the emergency room. This could mean several things:
- Guaranteed data download speeds to ensure all patient records are available to the emergency responders instantly
- A maximum threshold for latency (the responsiveness of the network) to make sure video links work efficiently for specialists to dial in and provide advice
- Ultra-reliable connectivity to allow patient monitoring technology to transfer data back to the hospital in real-time
With a slice of the network dedicated to emergency services, the performance metrics can be adjusted to enable these use cases, and because the slice is isolated from the rest of the network’s internet traffic, you can better guarantee performance, reliability and security.
A network for everyone, and a network for everything
Over the years, we have had a tendency to define the technology roadmap and then try to find the use cases to justify investment. This is not necessarily the right way to move forward in the digital world, but there is often a “chicken and egg” situation where the network has to act as a catalyst for the use cases.
But this is why network slicing is so important – it makes the “chicken and egg” conundrum a moot point.
As a telecom operator, we can build the network in the knowledge is can be flexed and adapted to suit different use cases through network slicing. We no longer have to build the network in a homogeneous way, as we can customise the experience across the same physical infrastructure.
For those reading this article in the energy industry, we might want a network designed to higher density of IoT devices to better support the rollout of smart meters. But for the healthcare industry, use cases are different, therefore the connectivity requirements will be different. The beauty of network slicing is it offers the freedom to be innovative in ways we could not do before, and without compromise.