NEWCASTLE, Washington — Edge computing is often mentioned as a key benefit and motivation for 5G networks, but the formation of mobile edge computing (MEC) and how it connects to operators’ cloud strategies is mostly uncharted. Almost every network operator agrees on the edge’s importance in the construct of 5G, but how each will balance how it gets there and the form those frameworks take is an ongoing debate and central point of confusion.
“Edge computing is an extremely complicated topic,” said Karri Kuoppamaki, VP of technology and strategy at T-Mobile US, at the recent Mobile Future Forward event. Because it takes so many forms and is used to describe various capabilities it’s important to narrow in on where it is, how it works, and what it does, he explained.
“Where’s the edge and what’s going to get computed?” he said. “It’s going to be different depending on the use case and what you apply it for.”
As things stand today, “there is no edge” and “if there is, everything is centralized,” Kuoppamaki said. It’s not as if “there’s going to be a massive benefit by magically doing something different tomorrow. The reality is that the networks are already pretty distributed today.”
Edge Vis-a-Vis the Cloud
Sprint CTO John Saw has a more positive view of the near-term opportunity at the edge, but frames that against the relative limitations posed by 4G LTE networks today. “Like it or not, if you are a 5G operator you have to provide a cloud solution,” he said, adding that operators can either build a cloud platform in house or create one through partnership with a hyperscale cloud provider.
“You have to be in that business, like it or not, and hopefully this time around, unlike LTE, we’ll be able to monetize that,” Saw said during a separate on-stage interview at the event. Sprint’s motivation for cloud computing pivots around the ability to “move your brains to the cloud so that you lower costs” by localizing more computing resources, he added.
“Cloud computing and edge computing goes almost hand in hand. With edge computing you bring massive amounts of computation to the edge and it’s needed for time-sensitive or low-latency applications,” Saw said. “Practically speaking for someone like Sprint where we own a lot of our own cell sites and switch locations, that’s ideal for hosted mobile edge computing capabilities. Nobody is going to be closer to a Sprint customer than Sprint.”
Some of those cell sites are resource constrained but “most of them are not” and that gives Sprint an opportunity to enable edge computing on existing resources, he explained. “Sprint is in the process of actually turning down our CDMA. Those are big complicated boxes and that will create a lot of room” for other uses, he explained.
While cell towers aren’t the only locations where MEC can be deployed, those properties present operators, particularly those that own towers, with a greater opportunity, Saw said.
Establishing new capabilities and frameworks at the edge of the network gives operators another opportunity to stake a claim in the cloud computing landscape, said Chris Penrose, president of advanced mobility and enterprise at AT&T, at the event.
Challenges Beget Opportunities
Synchronoss CEO Glenn Lurie, a veteran telco executive and former CEO of AT&T’s mobility business, says operators need to understand their position and embrace the challenge as they deploy 5G networks. “The edge is going to happen. It has to happen.” Why? “It’s as simple as the latencies, it’s as simple as what we’re going to want to do with these devices going forward,” he said.
“I could argue so many use cases where the edge makes sense and the carriers already have the infrastructure, already have everything in the right place, it would really make sense for them to take control of that themselves,” Lurie said. “I don’t know why they wouldn’t and I think they will.”
Operators also have to be thoughtful in their approach to the edge so as not to overly tax their resources, he and others said at the event. “Every single piece of data does not have to then go into a centralized cloud. We’re going to have to have a lot of intelligence to make those decisions” because it’s not feasible to send massive amounts of data over the WAN, Lurie said.
T-Mobile US’ Kuoppamaki agrees with that view. “[Operators] need to be a little bit cautious and deliberate in [their] strategy and approach to edge computing so [they] don’t just do something for the sake of doing it.”