AT&T is banking on edge computing as the means to fuel the growth of third-party applications such as autonomous cars, augmented and virtual reality and robotic manufacturing.
Edge computing addresses the need for near real-time computation -- as well as addressing the massive amount of processing that's needed on devices -- by moving computation into the cloud. By tapping into the new 5G radio access network (RAN), AT&T's 65,000 cell towers and roughly 5,000 central offices could be used for edge computing.
"It doesn't mean we would put this in every single one of those points, but we certainly have the opportunity to do that where it makes sense," said Andre Fuetsch, president of AT&T Labs and chief technology officer, in an interview with Light Reading's Carol Wilson. "I think it is frankly an advantage that none of the cloud players have. I think it totally changes the game." (See Edge Computing: AT&T's Next Big Play?)
Fuetsch said that 5G is the vehicle to make edge computing happen across a distributed cloud using white boxes. 5G's faster speeds and low latency are key elements for edge computing. The physical distances between a mobile device and its network resources also determine latency, but that can be resolved by moving compute from data centers in the core of the cloud into macro towers, small cells and central offices that are located at the edge of the cloud.
Fuetsch said that AT&T was still figuring out the business model, which includes finding the best use cases and locations, as well as the correct architecture. He said that developers are faced with two options.
"They can develop on the device or in the cloud, which typically means in the data center, hundreds if not 1,000-plus miles away," he said. "So if they want to do anything from a real-time standpoint they are basically constrained to what they have locally. For these high-intensity applications like VR, you are dealing with form factors. You don't want to strap on a backpack to have a VR experience."
Instead, edge computing would give third-party developers the ability to offload latency-dependent compute functions to within miles of a cell tower or central office.
But edge computing wasn't a cure-all for everything, Fuetsch said. For example, using it for connected cars in an urban area makes sense, but a different technology would come into play on interstates or more rural areas.
As AT&T disaggregates and opens up interfaces for 5G RAN, it will deploy edge computing in dense urban areas over the next few years.
— Mike Robuck, Editor, Telco Transformation