Nicole Ferraro

7 October 2020

10 min read

As we move toward a future of endless applications that demand accelerated processing and ultra-low latency – for everything from VR and AR consumption to autonomous vehicles, personalized retail, real-time health diagnostics and beyond – telcos are seizing the opportunity to reimagine their network architecture and rebuild for the emerging edge computing opportunity.

If it feels like just yesterday that the cloud was being heralded as a revolutionary new computing paradigm, consider that edge computing is forecast to produce a $4 trillion economy by 2030, according to industry analyst Chetan Sharma. That’s projected to be four times larger than the cloud computing market.

The ability to offer edge compute capabilities stands to pose several benefits for telcos: from operational savings enabled by virtualized software to new revenue streams and deeper relationships with customers seeking to deploy high-speed, low-latency applications in industries such as financial services, healthcare, retail, and manufacturing, just to name a few.

In addition to supporting and enabling next-generation applications by moving computing closer to the physical location of data being collected, operator edge networks could potentially offer other benefits such as stronger security or improved compliance with data provenance regulations like GDPR.

With edge computing positioned to transform the industry, telcos large and small are investing time and resources to re-architect their networks and place edge computing at the center of their operational strategies going forward.

“Telcos are in a much better position here than they were in the cloud computing world, because they have location.” - Arpit Joshipura, The Linux Foundation
Why telcos already have an ‘edge’

While some industry experts lament that telcos missed an opportunity with cloud computing by allowing a few large players to dominate the market, edge is expected to give those operators a chance to regain power thanks to existing networking resources serving as a natural place for edge nodes.

Arpit Joshipura, GM for networking, IoT & edge at The Linux Foundation says that “telcos are in a much better position here than they were in the cloud computing world, because they have location.”

Joshipura is part of LF Edge, an umbrella organization of The Linux Foundation that aims to establish an open, interoperable framework for edge computing independent of hardware, silicon, cloud or operating systems.

Joshipura noted that telcos are already in proximity to their customers physically through base stations and smart central offices. Over the last five years, he said, many have been upgrading their generic server-based infrastructure to be able to support software on the edge.

Alan DiCicco, solutions marketing senior director at network equipment provider Calix, echoed that point. “All of the larger service providers who have infrastructure, who are in larger cities and urban centers, are looking at their central offices and trying to imagine how they can use them as edge compute locations,” he said.

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Rebuilding at the edge

Turning existing architecture into edge compute locations essentially means operators are transitioning their infrastructure into software-driven networks powered by cloud-native technologies.

The Linux Foundation’s LF Edge describes edge architecture as consisting of three main nodes:

  1. Device edge (where the edge devices sit)
  2. Local edge (which includes two sublayers to support application and network workloads)
  3. Cloud (for applications that need processing not possible at other edge nodes)

For telcos, this decentralization of compute power means moving from specialized hardware to common off-the-shelf (COTS) servers that are placed at the network and customer edge to run virtual network functions (VNFs).

Building edge compute architecture typically takes the form of a layered approach: First, deploying a software-defined network (SDN)-controlled IP fabric to interconnect locations, which is followed by building an application layer tying services back to the broader network and an orchestration layer that pushes applications out around the globe.

Overall, rebuilding for the edge will allow telcos to move away from high-cost proprietary network hardware to simplified, software-driven networks that are capable of accommodating the high-speed, low latency demands of Internet of Things (IoT) and 5G enterprise applications.

“We recognized the role that edge compute would have in creating everything from smart factories to smart cities” -- Robert Boyanovsky, AT&T
How edge enables 5G

Concurrent with the transition to edge computing is the emergence of 5G, which for many telcos is the primary driver for transforming their networks. As operators engage in a race to offer 5G services, which brings anticipated speeds that are 5x to 10x that of 4G networks, they’re simultaneously focused on rebuilding their networks to be able to support 5G applications and process massive amounts of data at the edge.

AT&T is one company tying its edge computing strategy directly to a 5G network transformation.

Asked about the importance of edge computing to AT&T, Robert Boyanovsky, VP of mobility and IoT at AT&T Business, said the company is “doubling down” on edge solutions and that the technology has always been part of the company’s 5G plans.

“We recognized the role that edge compute would have in creating everything from smart factories to smart cities,” he said. Boyanovsky believes increasing network speeds will be “transformational” for the business and the combined power of 5G and edge will put compute power where it’s needed.

AT&T isn’t alone in using 5G as a motivating factor for re-architecting its network. Verizon’s 5G and edge strategies also go hand in hand, and are being marketed as such. As detailed on Verizon’s website, the company’s “Verizon 5G Edge” multi-access edge compute (MEC) platform enables a wide array of low-latency services across industry sectors.

Verizon identifies opportunities like remote and robotic surgery in healthcare and using AI-accelerated market forecasting in financial services as just a couple of potential use cases that were previously unfeasible due to latency demands but will soon be made possible by its Verizon 5G Edge.

Virtual to the core

As part of their 5G and mobile edge strategies, both AT&T and Verizon have spent the last several years working to virtualize their entire networks from the core to the edge.

Strategically, this is an important evolution of the network infrastructure as it prepares to handle vast amounts of data. Virtualizing the radio access network (RAN) allows for more flexibility by separating network functions from underlying hardware, while increasing capacity and scalability necessary to support next-generation applications. A side benefit comes from reducing overall CAPEX and OPEX by moving away from legacy and proprietary mobile network infrastructure technology.

One of Verizon's vRAN partners is Samsung, which has spent years innovating to support the move from purpose-built hardware RAN solutions to a virtualized environment.

Alok Shah, VP of strategy, business development, and marketing for the Networks Division of Samsung Electronics America, says that in the context of 5G, his company sees great potential for edge computing combined with RAN virtualization.

“We believe that this shift towards a more software-based platform will benefit operators in many ways spanning from network slicing to new service opportunities and security,” he said.

“We believe that this shift towards a more software-based platform will benefit operators in many ways spanning from network slicing to new service opportunities and security." - Alok Shah, Samsung Electronics America
5G is just part of the story

Telcos largely agree that edge computing is the future. But they don’t necessarily share the same motivations. Louisiana-based CenturyLink, for instance, has shifted its focus to edge computing over the course of the past year. Late last summer, the company announced it would spend “several hundred million dollars” on edge computing services and open an initial 100 edge computing locations across the US.

Paul Savill, SVP of enterprise technology and product management for enterprise services at CenturyLink, says the company sees itself uniquely positioned to take advantage of edge computing thanks to its combination of fiber assets, data centers and cloud resources. However, unlike AT&T and Verizon, CenturyLink does not see 5G as core to its edge strategy.

“We believe in an edge compute environment, tons of applications won’t use 5G at all. We already know that, because we’re deploying them today for companies using fiber connectivity into facilities, and sometimes pairing that with wireless technologies other than 5G,” said Savill.

For CenturyLink, edge computing is transforming the way the company does business from an architectural standpoint, with telecom services for security and voice collaboration, for example, becoming increasingly virtualized. Savill notes that CenturyLink plans to deploy a DDOS edge service early next year.

CenturyLink is still in the process of rebuilding its network and has yet to complete the final orchestration level. According to Savill, the company has so far been able to deploy edge compute solutions for customers based on a statement-of-work or private edge basis. While it has not yet deployed global, multi-tenant edge compute services, Savill says that’s what’s next.

He’s also bullish on the potential for cost savings: Savill says CenturyLink expects edge computing will result in operational savings within a year.

To back that up, one example he cites is that edge eliminates high costs associated with truck rolls for physical service deployments and network upgrades. Rather than sending a technician into the field to continuously upgrade service and capacity, which is a large operational expense for telcos, with edge compute they’ll be able to just push software updates to the network instead.

Learning from partners

While operators are at varying stages of their transitions to the edge, those we spoke with are firm in their assessment that edge compute is the future, that their networks are well-positioned to benefit from this tech evolution, and that use cases will continue to reveal themselves.

Premise and network edge use cases (AT&T)

AT&T’s Boyanovsky said the company’s edge strategy has been based on customers' requests. Thus far, AT&T has seen an appetite for two main versions of edge computing:

  • The first is premise-based edge computing, or computing that provides low latency and high security by connecting with servers deployed on premise.
  • The second, which the company calls AT&T Network Edge, is computing that accesses the network in a city for region-specific use cases.

To illustrate the benefit of premise-based edge computing, Boyanovski offered the example of how a smart manufacturing plant could use video as a sensor for quality control. With edge computing, the sensor data gets processed at the source, which would allow the factory to gain real-time quality-control insights and significantly cut down on the time it would take for the same amount of data to be sent to the cloud or core data center for processing.

A network edge could also enable a retailer with several locations across a city to offer next-generation customer applications. One example is what might be called an “endless aisle,” or an application that allows an in-store shopper to scan a barcode and have that item shipped to their home in any color or size they want -- even if it’s not available at the physical store.

This type of application would serve the dual benefit of putting power back in consumers’ hands and allowing them to order what they want in the moment, while enabling brick-and-mortar retailers to operate on a more even footing with online competitors.

Food and finance at the edge (CenturyLink)

CenturyLink, meanwhile, says it has also begun to discover potential edge use cases through its initial deployments. One example the company cites is an edge computing solution CenturyLink deployed for a million-square-foot food processing plant.

With its edge computing solution up and running, the plant is able to process information so quickly that it only requires a couple of people to manage it, Savill said, adding that he can see the same model being duplicated “50 times over” due to its efficiency from a human labor standpoint.

CenturyLink also cites use cases in financial services, noting that running resource-intensive algorithms closer to stock exchanges could help global banking institutions avoid substantial losses.

Turning on the mobile edge (Verizon)

In a move that will likely usher in interesting use cases, Verizon announced this summer that its 5G mobile edge compute is live for developers at Verizon's 5G Edge in Boston and the Bay Area, with plans to expand to more cities later this year. In a press release, Verizon (working with AWS Wavelength) said this allows developers and enterprises to build entirely new categories of applications for the edge.

Citing an emerging use case in the world of sports, the companies noted that stats and analytics company ShotTracker is testing how its sensor-based technology can change basketball when computing is done at Verizon’s 5G Edge.

“Its system delivers more than 70 unique and autonomous basketball stats and requires millisecond latency to provide teams, broadcasters and game partners with instant analytics,” notes the press release. According to Verizon, 5G and MEC will speed up the process and allow ShotTracker to layer more data, stats and analysis in real time.

Industry at the edge

While edge use cases are still to reveal themselves on a large scale, ISPs like AT&T, Verizon, and CenturyLink recognize that this computing revolution has the potential to change the industry and usher in new revenue streams, operational and cost savings, and an opportunity for operators to establish a dominant space in a potentially rich and fast-moving market. Unlike the shift to cloud computing which rewarded tech and IT firms, telcos see the move to the edge not just as a game changer, but as a game they are well-positioned to win.

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