In the evolution of communication, while 1G established mobile connectivity through analogue voice connectivity; 2G enhanced the voice capacity delivering digital voice services to masses; 3G introduced data; 4G delivered more capacity and opened new arenas for data use cases; 5G is expected to be the game changer, heralding new frontiers of machine-to-machine communication.
Few doubt the incredible potential of 5G. It’s set to unleash the power of digital across multiple sectors, making factories, warehouses, workplaces, hospitals, and homes more efficient, transportation faster and more convenient, and cities smarter.
On the consumer end too, 5G is likely to transform the user experience. Use cases like Cloud gaming for the millennials and immersive viewing for Bollywood lapping audience are likely to bring a reset in the Indian media and entertainment industry.
However, for all of these use cases to be implemented, there is a need for not only lower latency, higher bandwidth and speed as promised by 5G but also technologies supporting data on the Edge, process, and compute power on the fly and dynamic provisioning. Edge computing is a key enabler for some of these functionalities and a thoughtful combination of 5G+Edge can create significant incremental value.
The promise of 5G entails zillions of devices in a connected ecosystem generating exabytes of data. On current wireless networks, most data are moved to central data centers to be processed, which slows down the process. And while today most applications being used aren’t really impacted, with the advent of emerging technologies such as autonomous vehicles and remote surgeries, any delay in AI being used could be problematic.
While stepping into the future to find the economic benefits is key, some of the near-term use cases like industrial automation will also require on-premise and near-premise Edge based platforms.
A 5G Edge network not only improves the performance by reducing the network bandwidth and latency requirement for data heavy applications, but also delivers significant savings as the data does not need to travel to far placed data centers for processing and is instead processed closer to the user/application.
With the compute power moving to the cloud, 5G Edge also allows proliferation of COTS devices instead of complicated and expensive devices with compute and processing power. Further, the disaggregated approach of network performance makes it more fungible, scalable, and resilient.
With connectivity at the core, telecom operators are uniquely positioned to expand their service portfolio and integrate Edge computing with their network solutioning. As telecom operators are expanding their horizon outside connectivity, globally telecom operators can consider different roles:
- Provider of network Edge as a service: Telecom operator, having existing proximity to the end customers, could convert their existing point of presence to regional and local Edge zones. For this, telecom operators will have to transform their networks into cloud based, containerized network with dynamic orchestration, and SLA based API access.
- Provider of infrastructure as a service: Telecom operators could also opt for combining compute and storage to their network and offer a bundled service of infrastructure as a service. The distributed network infrastructure with right level of provisioned AI, compute and storage can be positioned as platform enablers allowing third party vendors to host their platforms, solutions for end use cases.
- Provider of platform as a service: Here the telecom operator builds horizontal capabilities by creating platforms around specified technologies like IoT, AI, advanced analytics. However, interoperability and standardization would be key to ensure that varied use case requirements are met.
- Provider of software as a service: Lastly, the telecom operator has an opportunity to create end to end vertical capabilities including components of managed services (e.g., security, data analytics etc.) baked in to cater to specific industry use case.
Whichever path the telecom operator decides to take, it will have to weigh its options of building these capabilities inhouse or partnering with third parties in terms of its end objective of gaining speed to market or being self-sustainable. Globally, we have seen multiple telecom operators who have preferred partnership as a route to market where they have partnered with hyper scalers and technology partners to create comprehensive capabilities which has not only shortened their time to market but also reduced their initial investment cost in building the capabilities inhouse.
While there is no doubt that deploying the 5G + Edge computing will come with its own challenges like investments in creating a distributed data center strategy including creation of regional and local Edge zones. Data sovereignty and privacy is another dimension that needs to be carefully evaluated as every endpoint and its associated Edge infrastructure become an extension of the cloud, resulting in an increase in overall complexity.
However, the benefits of unleashing the true power of 5G outweigh some of these challenges and gives the impetus to telecom operators in investing in these capabilities and expanding beyond connectivity. With the massive push to digital, and emergence of use cases supporting massive machine to machine communication and mixed reality, the cost of being left behind is arguably greater.
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