Should operators try to own the edge?

At the Edge Computing Congress 2019 in London, the keynotes and panel discussions focused on the unique opportunity for operators to own the edge if they want to.

Edge computing refers to distributed datacenters that place reduce the physical distance between the cloud and the edge of the network – i.e. the RAN. The main point of this is to reduce the lag from interacting with the cloud in real time and to allow the kind of low-latency communication services that promise to be the most novel new feature of 5G. Edge computing is also expected to help with things like bandwidth flexibility for IoT, cloud security and data localisation.

The presentations were opened by Julian Bright of analyst firm Ovum, who warned that 5G probably needs the edge more than the edge needs 5G and set the tone for the rest of the morning by asking who will own it. Bright also raised the issue of interoperability and noted that the definition of a common framework for edge computing is some way from being determined.

As is often the way, most of the talking points came from a panel (pictured) that aimed to explore definitions of edge computing, what the point of it is, and the business cases for investing in it. It was agreed that the edge is not a discrete, standalone thing, but rather an extension of the cloud. That said, by definition it requires its own separate physical infrastructure, which has to be built and owned by someone.

This is presents a unique opportunity for operators, for whom distributed infrastructure is a core competence. They also own, or at least have access to, a lot of remote locations, so they have a head start over cloud specialists and IT companies. Edge computing was said to be the perfect example of the convergence of networks and IT, which raises the question of which of those worlds will define and own it.

A key issue for edge computing concerns interoperability. As an extension of the public cloud it needs to be usable by all stakeholders. One way to ensure this is standardisation, something the telecoms world is very familiar with. Standardisation typically takes a long time, however, and the panel warned that operators are likely to lose their advantages in this space if they allow themselves to be bogged down by it.

There are also cultural dynamics involved. The IT world typically moves faster and is less risk-averse than the networking world. While telcos are used to significant infrastructure capex, this is typically in areas where there is proven demand and ROI. Heavy investment in edge computing will require more of a ‘build it and they will come’ strategic philosophy.

This observation led to a discussion of the chicken-and-egg dilemma that comes with the prospect of investing in a new technological platform without a mature business case to go with it. As we saw with historical attempts to break the duopoly in smartphone operating systems, it’s hard to get customers for your platform without a strong app ecosystem, but developers are reluctant to embrace any platform that doesn’t have a large and enduring user base.

There was unanimity among the panel that ownership of the edge is there for operators to take if they want it, but they need to move fast. If they do they will need to accept risk in the form of capex without the guaranteed ROI they’re used to and they will also need to seed the app ecosystem in ways they have historically avoided. For operators the edge is about new revenue opportunities rather than efficiencies and their approach to it needs to reflect that.

After the panel there was a keynote from Mahadev Satyanarayanan, Professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University, who further explored the value propositions of edge computing. He stressed that the deeper the use of the edge, the more of a premium can be charged for the resulting service. A real-world example of such a service can be seen in the video below of a project Satyanarayanan oversaw, using vehicle cameras to enable crowdsourced traffic information without the driver needing to be actively involved.

75% of enterprise data expected to be processed on the edge by 2020

Industry experts participating in the Edge Computing Congress shared their views on how and when enterprises can benefit from edge computing.

Vodafone believes the market is quickly evolving from a centralised cloud to distributed cloud, expecting 75% of enterprise generated data will be processed outside of a centralised data centre by 2020.

This year’s Edge Computing Congress is being held in west London, where stakeholders on the value-chain are bouncing ideas off each other on how edge computing will impact the industry and how to capture opportunities brought about by the evolution of computing from the centre to the edge.

In a recent Telecoms.com Intelligence report, we predicted that 5G will help push edge computing from a small group of early adopters to be embraced by a much larger number of companies. This prediction is largely confirmed on Day 1 of the conference.

According to Vodafone’s data, shared by Simon Withers (pictured), the company’s Head of Digital Solutions Design, 27% of businesses are already implementing edge, and a further 18% plan to do so in the next year. The operator also predicted that, as a result of the trend towards edge cloud, 90% of customer deployments will be critically dependant on latency and bandwidth, the key technology properties 5G will offer.

To serve the fast-moving market, Vodafone is pursuing a multi-cloud strategy and is offering enterprise customers with two different solutions: dedicated and distributed. Withers also shared a few use cases the operators is working on with its partners, including supporting connected factory with dedicated edge, next generation retail with augmented reality on the edge, and worker insights through augmented operation.

Edge computing does not have to wait for 5G to happen. One of the most broadly adopted edge computing cases is private LTE for campus, for enterprise, etc. Yet this is an area that has become controversial to telecom operators. A representative from another big European operator believed private LTE, and in the future private 5G, may prove a new business opportunity for mobile operators if it is a network slice bought from the generic mobile network.

It would be a challenger if it was operated independently—for example the discussion in Germany that 5G frequencies could be awarded locally to private networks. However what worries the operator the most, according to the representative, is the webscale companies (AWS, Google, Microsoft) getting frequencies and offering services on the edge. This is already happening. Amazon has filed to FCC to expand its test on 3.5GHz band and, as Light Reading reports, this could be related to Amazon’s plan to “offer cloud-native, private mobile networks in the CBRS band to developers, telecom operators, public sector operators, enterprises and others.”

Another sign that there still lacks consensus on edge computing presented itself when a straw poll was conducted on the conference participants by the speaker from STL Partners, a consulting firm. When asked to choose the leading benefit of edge computing, two came on top, both at 25%, which are “enabling low-latency applications” and “data localisation, security and sovereignty”. Reducing connection cost to the central cloud, which the presenter expected to be high on the list, and we highlighted in our recent report, came joint last, selected by only 5% of the conference attendees.

AT&T joins the retail robot revolution

AT&T Business has unveiled a new partnership to target the retail segment, a vertical which might look completely different in a few years’ time.

Working alongside Badger Technologies, the aim here is to improve capabilities which are already in place as opposed to create a human-less shopping experience. With its new 5G capabilities, improvements for indoor coverage and expansion of MEC, the duo are targeting operational efficiencies throughout the super market.

“In-building cellular solutions, including 5G and edge computing, are critical drivers of digital transformation for retailers,” said Mo Katibeh, CMO of AT&T Business.

“These technologies will eventually equip robots with both the compute power and lower latency needed to increase revenue, improve the in-store experience, and elevate employees to better assist customers. Badger Technologies’ robots can help retailers make sure they have products in stock and in the right place, increasing customer satisfaction. That leads to increased revenue. That’s the power of data.”

Robots in supermarkets are not exactly a new idea. In some of the larger retailers in the US, small robots roll through the aisles hoping to identify out-of-stock, mispriced or misplaced inventory as well as store hazards, informing human colleagues of up-coming tasks which need to be completed. However, running these systems over wifi can be inefficient and even impossible when it comes to transmission and processing of data.

Although this is a very simple application focused on improving efficiency as opposed to revolutionising the retail experience, it is an incremental step towards automation in the industry. In a few years’ time, there might not be any need to have humans working in the supermarket whatsoever; MEC and improved connectivity will be critical components.

Firstly, you have to look at the home delivery segment. Not all consumers will buy into this concept, however with improved connectivity, this could be a completely autonomous process. Amazon fulfilment centres already incorporate robotic processes to reduce the need for humans, whereas progress is being made on autonomous vehicles and small robots to make the delivery over the ‘last mile’. In theory, this does not have to have a single human in the process.

One other area which seems to attract headlines every couple of weeks are the cashier-less stores. The concept is not new, self-check out machines are becoming increasingly common, though this idea could be taken up another level. Amazon is once again making progress here, potentially removing the need for self-scan tills completely, though improvements in indoor connectivity and MEC could help this idea progress even further.

Finally, you only have to look at companies like Boston Dynamics to see the advancements which are being made with humanoid robots. Cashiers are heading towards the door and it might not be too long before shelf-stackers might follow them. Robotics is a field which is advancing ridiculously fast (see video at the bottom of article), and while the economics will not make sense for the moment, that is only a matter of time.

The warehouse could be robotic, payments could be managed through sensors and apps, on-shelf-stock and hazards could be monitored by simplistic robotics and cameras, restocking and hazards cleared by advanced robotics and deliveries could be performed by drones or autonomous vehicles. With MEC decreasing latency, cloud-based AI constantly improving all the processes and indoor connectivity ensuring everything runs smoothly, soon enough there might not be any need to have a human involved in the supermarket.

This might seem like an unrealistic idea right now, but always remember this Bill Gates quote; most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten.

AT&T + HPE = edgy TLC

AT&T has announced a new partnership with HPE to drive the benefits of edge computing in enterprise services.

The duo has agreed a go-to-market strategy to accelerate business adoption of edge connections and edge computing, seen by some as one of the most interesting areas of the up-coming 5G economy.

“AT&T’s software-defined network, including our 5G network, combined with HPE’s intelligent edge infrastructure can give businesses a flexible tool to better analyze data and process low-latency, high-bandwidth applications,” said Mo Katibeh, CMO of AT&T Business. “Bringing compute power closer to our network helps businesses push the boundaries of what is possible and create innovative new solutions.”

“HPE believes that the enterprise of the future will need to be edge-centric, cloud-enabled and data-driven to turn all of its data into action and value,” said Jim Jackson, CMO of HPE. “Our go-to-market alliance with AT&T, using HPE Edgeline Converged Edge Systems, will help deliver AT&T MEC services at scale to help our customers more quickly convert data into actionable intelligence, enabling unique digital experiences and smarter operations.”

There are of course many benefits to edge computing, though one of the areas AT&T will be hoping to address through this tie-up will be the security concerns which will emerge. This looks like it could be one of the key marketing plugs of the AT&T proposition, as its Multi-access Edge Compute (MEC) Services will hope to drive the benefits of mobility to enterprise customers.

From HPE’s perspective, the team will be contributing on the low-latency side of the 5G euphoria. HPE suggests its Edgeline Converged Edge Systems could help create use cases where applications can reside on premises for lower latency processing.

It might not be as ‘sexy’ as plugging ridiculous download speeds, but the greatest benefits of 5G to the telcos would appear to be diversification as opposed to increased squeeze on the wallets of consumers. With more data being created each day, the edge will become increasingly important to activate products, services and business models in a faster and more operationally efficient manner. Enterprise organizations will largely be unaware of how to reap the greatest benefits, a pleasant niche the telcos could certainly profit from.

The private power of the edge

One of conundrums which has been quietly emerging over the last couple of months concerns how to maintain privacy when attempting to improve customer experience, but the power of the edge might save the day.

If telcos want to be able to improve customer experience, data needs to be collected and analysed. This might sound like a very obvious statement to make, but the growing privacy movement across the world, and the potential of new regulatory restraints, might make this more difficult.

This is where the edge could play a more significant role. One of the more prominent discussions from Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this year was the role of the edge, and it does appear this conversation has continued through to Light Reading’s Big 5G Event in Denver.

Some might say artificial intelligence and data analytics are solutions looking for a problem, but in this instance, there is a very real issue to address. Improving customer experience though analytics will only be successful if implemented quickly, some might suggest in real-time, therefore the models used to improve performance should be hosted on the edge. This is an example of where the latency business model can directly impact operations.

It also addresses another few issues, firstly, the cost of sending data back to a central data centre. As it was pointed out today, telcos cannot afford to send all customer data back to be analysed today, it is simply an unreasonable quantity, therefore the more insight which can be actioned on the edge, with only the genuinely important insight being sent back to train models, the more palatable customer experience management becomes.

Secondly, the privacy issue is partly addressed. The more which is actioned on the edge, as close to the customer as possible, the lesser the concerns of the privacy advocates. Yes, data is still being collected, analysed and (potentially) actioned upon, but as soon as the insight is realised the sooner it can be deleted.

There are still sceptics when it comes to the edge, the latency business case, artificial intelligence and data analytics, but slowly more cases are starting to emerge to add credibility.

Qualcomm moves to the edge with Cloud AI 100 chip

Mobile chip-maker Qualcomm reckons all the stuff it has learned about processing AI in smartphones will come in handy in datacentres too.

The Qualcomm Cloud AI 100 Accelerator is a special chip designed to process artificial intelligence in the cloud. Specifically Qualcomm seems to think it has an advantage when it comes to ‘AI inference’ processing – i.e. using algorithms that have been trained with loads of data. This stands to reason as it has its chips in millions of smart devices, all of which will have been asked to do some inference processing of their own from time to time.

“Today, Qualcomm Snapdragon mobile platforms bring leading AI acceleration to over a billion client devices,” said Qualcomm Product Management SVP Keith Kressin. “Our all new Qualcomm Cloud AI 100 accelerator will significantly raise the bar for the AI inference processing relative to any combination of CPUs, GPUs, and/or FPGAs used in today’s datacentres. Furthermore, Qualcomm Technologies is now well positioned to support complete cloud-to-edge AI solutions all connected with high-speed and low-latency 5G connectivity.”

The datacentre chips in question will largely be provided by Intel, although Nvidia has done a great job of converting its struggling mobile chip efforts into a successful AI processing operation. Qualcomm claims a 10x performance per watt advantage over incumbent AI inference chips and, while it didn’t call out any competitors in its press release, the predominance of their names in the headlines of other stories covering this launch makes it likely that has been the angle behind the scenes.

Edge takes centre stage at MWC 2019

For all the hype and buzz which was generated ahead of Mobile World Congress 2019, the edge stole some of the attention away from 5G.

Perhaps this is more of a realisation that 5G is not all its cracked up to, at least for the moment anyway. After handing out the accolades for ‘5G first’, this now seems to be the time to settle down and take a mature look at what we have in front of us.

Numerous telcos have not crossed the finish line to offer 5G to those who feel they need it, but with the incredibly limited nature of the coverage and a lack of devices to make use of the bonanza, you have to ask what is the point? For all the promise of greatness, this year’s gathering had a much more pragmatic feel.

Yes, 5G is exciting, but its only the beginning. Yes, there is a chance to make more money, but the usecases have to be figured out. Yes, there are some interesting ideas out there, but Release 16 is where the magic will happen. And yes, today’s 5G will bring certain benefits, but there is of course a lot of work to be done.

It might seem like a bit of a negative thing to say but keep the champagne on ice because nothing has been achieved yet. And this seemed to be the mood throughout the halls of the Fira. The industry has been building up this promise of a connected society, built on superfast 5G networks, for years, but the hype seems to have been dissipated by reality.

There was of course a lot of talk around 5G, perhaps most notably because of the devices the manufacturers were showing off, but it would certainly be fair to say the edge stole at least a bit of the limelight.

Although there are some telcos out there who believe they can build a 5G business on the concept of speed, many are building towards the latency angle. This is where the edge will play a critical role, and the rational businesses throughout the world are building partnerships and investing in technology to make these services a reality.

Telefonica is an excellent example, as while it announced a partnership with Microsoft to smarten up its Aura product ahead of taking on the likes of Amazon and Google in the personal assistant space, this tie up will help it drive towards the edge, creating a wealth of new services for a variety of customers. During the press conference, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella pointed towards the edge as one of the most powerful developments over the next couple of years, and he certainly wasn’t the only one.

On the final day of MWC, Ian Fogg of OpenSignal spoke of how importance low latency will be to enhance the gaming experience for users around, while two halves of the same bad played a set in opposite ends of the hall, one in Vodafone’s stand and the other in Ericsson. While we’re not convinced this is a block-buster usecase, it does demonstrate what can be done.

While the edge plays an important role in content caching and distribution, a more intelligent can help change the industry in numerous other ways due to the idea of ‘dumb devices’. The more processing power, intelligence and storage components which can be moved off these devices, the cheaper they become to manufacture. This could potentially have a scaling effect on certain aspects of the already blossoming IOT segment.

Of course, what is worth taking into account is that there are numerous devices and services which are becoming increasingly complex. Only a segment of the IOT world will become ‘dumb’, and irrelevant of how small it is, it will open the door, encourage growth and adoption, as well as broadening the number of usecases which might be considered commercially unviable currently.

The same argument could be said for smartphones. With more ‘intelligence’, storage and processing power moving off devices, there could be more freedom to evolve the smartphone. Power demands and the necessity of having some components on the devices could be removed. There could be a lot more opportunity to create new concepts.

An interesting counterpoint to this latency usecase for 5G was raised by Bengt Nordstrom, CEO at Northstream, during our MWC podcast. Nordstrom points to the reduction in latency over the last few years, and whether this has encouraged any new (or growth) revenues in the industry. If it is simply improving experience as opposed to adding to the bottom line, is there any reason to believe this wouldn’t be the case moving forward, and does it build a business case for 5G investments?

Looking at the usecases for low latency, there are many, some of which are arguably more important than others. Video chat is one which is mentioned often, especially when one of the parties in a remote location, such as international reporters. Esports is a significant one, and this is a growing industry. Betting and bidding could be another, and while many will think of sports betting first and foremost, the financial sector would certainly benefit as fractions of a seconds could means thousands in trading, especially with automation playing a role. Smart factories, transport systems, air-traffic control, security threat detection, network automation are more. There are numerous examples.

For us, the emphasis on edge computing represents a shift in mentality from the industry. 5G discussions are all about laying the groundwork for the future digital community, but in giving more airtime to topics like the edge, the industry is seemingly more focused on the commercial realities of futuristic connectivity. 5G won’t make the future, it will just enable it.

5G was supposed to steal the show in Barcelona this year, and it certainly was the protagonist, but the edge certainly commanded more than its 15 minutes.