Telecoms.com periodically invites expert third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Richard Piasentin, Chief Strategy Officer at Accedian, says it’s time for CSPs to stake their claim to the mobile edge.
Mobile data and device volumes have been soaring over recent years. That in itself should be some cause for the telecoms sector to celebrate. But things are about to heat up even more as Multi-Access Edge Compute (MEC) and 5G come of age. The opportunities for growth are huge. But we’ve seen this before, with cloud computing. In the end it was not the network operators that captured the market but an online bookseller (Amazon), a software-maker (Microsoft) and a digital advertising firm (Google).
To ensure a different outcome this time, trust will be vital. Communication service providers (CSPs) will have to provide assurances to customers on the security and performance of networks and applications. They will also have to trust each other a lot more, by standardizing their tooling and approaches.
It’s Already Happening
MEC and 5G do not represent a far-away future. Technology deployments are already gaining pace. Gartner claims that by 2022, more than half of enterprise-generated data will be created and processed at the network edge. Meanwhile, the GSMA predicts that operators will spend over $1 trillion on their networks through 2025, 80% of which will go towards 5G projects. According to Nvidia boss Jensen Huang, “we’re about to enter a phase where we’re going to create an internet that is thousands of times bigger than the internet that we enjoy today.”
The intelligent edge will be at the center of this new internet, processing critical data closer to end users for extremely low latency, high bandwidth and high availability. The use cases are almost limitless. They range from streaming of ultra HD 3D video, virtual reality movies and 8K video to real-time comms via video and hologram calls, VR gaming and augmented reality. Then there are examples in the ultra-reliable low-latency communications (uRLLC) space, such as real-time factory automation, remote healthcare including monitoring of patients’ vital signs, and connected car collision avoidance.
Time to Step Up
On paper, CSPs are in a great position to help to drive this new wave of innovation. Edge data centers must be close to devices, which gives telcos and their cell sites an advantage over the main cloud providers, whose centralized facilities could be many hundreds of miles away. But the location of servers is not the only calculation here and it’s still undecided who will provide what: CSPs, cloud providers, enterprises and even industrial solution providers like Bosch and Siemens all have skin in the game. In one model, cloud giants like AWS and Azure provide small edge nodes to enterprises to install directly, for example. In another, units like autonomous vehicles are fitted with on-board compute capabilities—enabling them to instantiate a node from the close-proximity edge provider.
The future hasn’t been written on this yet. But for CSPs, losing out to the likes of AWS et al again is not an option. MEC is a market set to be worth nearly $16 billion by 2025. That may be why some are looking to partner with the big cloud players now, to ensure they get a slice of the pie. Verizon has teamed up with AWS while AT&T announced deals with both Microsoft and Google Cloud. But as consultancy firm STL Partners warns, it may still be difficult for telcos to move up the value chain. They must think strategically and act fast, or risk losing share once again to the cloud giants.
Telcos Have the Edge, If They Have the Assurance
Owning the real estate is therefore certainly an advantage in the ongoing discussions that will thrash out how MEC projects are deployed in the wild. But it is far from a trump card. There will also need to be a major focus on performance management. MEC applications are not actually tied solely to the network edge, but must traverse multiple tiers. That means operators have to assure performance end-to-end: from devices to the edge, to private and then public clouds—including microservices-based architectures. Imagine how many different operators and service providers could be in that mix?
Finding a provider who can offer this kind of “common trust model” by providing comprehensive visibility into infrastructure (Layers 2-4), and applications (Layers 4-7) will not be easy. The granularity of insight needed into latency and packet loss is particularly important for certain business-critical apps. Another consideration is how to collect that crucial network and application data: sensors should be lightweight enough to scatter liberally at various locations around the edge—sending information back to a centralized AI-powered analytics engine for insight. That data also needs to include not just performance but also security metrics, to spot unusual patterns of behavior that could indicate attack. If there are any gaps in the protection of these environments, it won’t be long before nation states and cybercrime groups find them.
Finally, CSPs need to trust more. The only way to create a successful edge market globally is to standardize as much as possible, so that device makers, software developers and other key stakeholders know what to expect, wherever they are in the world. That’s an approach that worked pretty well to help the biggest cloud providers grow and scale, and it must happen here too.
How it all ends is anyone’s guess. But telcos have an opportunity here to be the performance-broker for the future of tech – think, developers looking for that trusted platform to make advancements in 5G, AI and more. And, whoever comes to those cross-carrier agreements first will be opened up to entire new facets of business opportunity. Frankly, it’s telcos for the taking. We know one thing: the battle for growth in a new world of rapid innovation will be won or lost at the network edge.
Richard is responsible for Accedian’s strategic planning process and investment priorities, ensuring the creation and development of a consistent brand communications and marketing strategy, and drives commercialization efforts in the areas of global product pricing, solution marketing, and business development. Richard began his career at Nortel Networks in 1992 as a test engineer for their public carrier switching division. From there, he segued into focusing on the wireless industry, taking on a variety of senior roles at Nortel within sales, operations, and supply chain during his 17 years at the company. After Nortel, he was vice president and general manager for BlackBerry’s North American business, and general manager of Viavi’s Visibility, Intelligence and Analytics (VIA) business unit. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering, RF specialization, from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.