Network Operators Experiment with Edge Computing – Seen as Essential to 5G’s Success

C. Drake

Summary Bullets:

  • Initiatives by mobile network operators illustrate the importance attributed to edge computing as an essential component for unlocking the benefits of 5G mobile networks.
  • However, plenty of challenges lie ahead for 5G and edge computing, including security concerns and the need to develop viable business models and use cases based on the new technologies.

Immersive virtual reality (VR), self-driving cars, and remote-controlled robots are just some of the things telecommunications service providers expect future 5G mobile networks to make possible. However, most large service providers are in agreement that higher-bandwidth 5G networks will, by themselves, be insufficient to support these emerging applications. Recent initiatives by large service providers, including Verizon, AT&T, and Deutsche Telekom, illustrate the importance being attributed to edge computing as an essential component for unlocking the benefits of 5G.

For example, at the end of January, Verizon announced that it had successfully tested edge computing technology on a live 5G network at its testbed in Houston, Texas. According to Verizon, the use of edge computing within its Houston 5G network resulted in a 50% fall in latency, or the lag-time, associated with sending that data for processing by computer servers.

Edge computing involves the deployment of computer power, data storage, and management closer to the end users of digital content and applications. This allows the associated data to be processed, analyzed, and acted on locally, instead of being transmitted over long distance networks to be processed at central data centers. For reasons related to economics and flexibility, a significant proportion of edge computing resources will, in future, be delivered as cloud services. Vendors such as Cisco, HPE, and VMware are expanding their ability to deliver edge computing and other IT resources on a ‘pay-as-you-consume’ basis.

The benefits of handling data and running applications locally include cost-savings, based on a massive reduction in the amount of bandwidth required to transport data across long distance networks for processing. Benefits also include the higher performance achieved by running applications closer to end users. This is especially important in the case of applications that have real-time performance requirements, including immersive VR and video gaming.

Nevertheless, plenty of challenges lie ahead for 5G and edge computing: not least the need for service providers and end users to develop viable business models and use cases based on the new technologies. Use cases will invariably be industry- and organization-specific, with retail organizations deploying quite different 5G applications compared with those of, say, healthcare organizations or transportation firms. Not all of them will necessary be viable or profitable. Additional challenges include a host of security concerns created by emerging 5G and edge computing use cases, whose distributed architectures will include many more locations at which security breaches can occur. These and other concerns mean that, for many, new 5G applications may be slow to materialize.

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