PARIS -- French service provider Orange today said it would begin rolling out 5G services in 2020 or 2021 but does not envisage the launch of commercial products based on network slicing until 2022.
The operator is conducting trials of 5G technology in various scenarios and will probably launch a service based on the non-standalone (NSA) variant of the 5G standard in 2020, Orange (NYSE: FTE) executives told reporters at an event in Paris earlier today.
However, the telco cautioned against any expectation of a "big bang" deployment, hinting that network rollout will be gradual and that 5G will co-exist with older 4G technology for many years.
Emmanuel Lugagne Delpon, a senior vice president at Orange Labs Networks, addresses the audience at Orange's 5G event in Paris earlier today.
Any service launch in the next two or three years will probably use the NSA version of 5G technology, after new radio specifications were locked down at the end of 2017.
With NSA, an operator would use 5G new radio in conjunction with a 4G core network. These NSA-based deployments should support various types of service, including enhanced mobile broadband.
But to provide more sophisticated services based on the concept of network slicing, operators will have to wait for the standalone version of 5G and the core network features that brings.
Using network slicing, service providers will -- in theory -- be able to provide a range of differentiated network services over the same physical infrastructure. Examples might include a low-latency connection for automation systems in factories and a very high-speed link for virtual reality services.
The current expectation is that specifications for SA technology will be locked down in June.
"What we believe is that if we start on NSA, then progressively we will have to more to SA to deliver the slicing promise, and it may take some years," said Emmanuel Lugagne Delpon, a senior vice president at Orange Labs Networks, in response to questions from reporters.
Nor is SA standardization the only obstacle to network slicing. Lugagne Delpon says the requisite equipment will not be ready until at least one year after standardization. "Then we will have to deploy the new core and make sure the old and new technologies work together and that will take time," he said.
Regulation could be another hindrance in the European market. The European Commission's rules on net neutrality are intended to prevent operators from giving preferential treatment to certain services, although exceptions could be made in the case of 5G network slicing.
Mari-Nöelle Jégo-Laveissière, Orange's executive director of innovation, marketing and technologies, gave a guarded answer when asked whether net neutrality regulations could threaten 5G. "We are in talks with the EU Commission so that we can develop the new use cases we want to implement," she said. "We have to look at European regulations to see how we can develop specific services."
Network slicing is frequently cited as one of the most attractive features of forthcoming 5G technology. It could allow operators to run their networks more efficiently and experiment with new service offerings.
But there is still considerable uncertainty over its implementation. One of the unresolved questions is just how granular a network slice will be, says Gabriel Brown, a principal analyst with the Heavy Reading market research company.
While some operators appear keen on developing network slices for particular services or industries, there is also the possibility of tailoring them to specific enterprise customers, for example.
— Iain Morris, News Editor, Light Reading