Edge + small cells: a dream team, once SCF addresses some key challenges
At the Small Cells World Summit event in London in May, edge computing, and its relationship with small cells, was a theme that emerged in many sessions. This led to Small Cell Forum adopting the following objective – ‘to support technology and define business cases for shared edge compute as a complement to small cells’.
That has led to the creation of a detailed program of work, which has already been gathering pace over the summer, while also building on last year’s activities around edge computing monetization strategies and ownership models. At SCF’s next Plenary meeting, to be held in London on September 16 and 17, representatives from many working groups will contribute to an ambitious program to tie the business cases for edge computing and small cells tightly together, and address both commercial and technical uncertainties which might limit progress.
Edge issues will impact the business models of every stakeholder in the small cell market over the coming years, so this content will be essential for many of our delegates, even those which are not yet commercially involved with edge platforms.
In particular, the Plenary will aim to identify the leading commercial use cases, which could drive deployment of combined edge/small cell solutions in the short term, and help to prove the wider case across multiple industries. Initially, SCF research indicates that mobile network operators (MNOs) have a high level of interest in edge computing, but are mainly targeting familiar user bases and applications. These include AR/VR gaming and high quality video streaming, both of which can benefit from bringing connectivity and processing power, together, close to the user. These appeal to MNOs because they can often be supported from existing outdoor cell sites, including small cells.
That risks leaving some of the emerging enterprise use cases, especially those that require on-premises and indoor edge nodes, unaddressed by the connectivity providers. This is where the Forum’s work in encouraging a broader base of service providers will be essential. The use cases which will require edge computing, like those that will require 5G, are very diverse and not every sector or service will be attractive to conventional MNOs to support. Specialized enterprise operators or neutral hosts will be important to ensure that every area of demand can be met, and while there will be separate Plenary sessions devoted to private networks, there will also be significant interplay with the edge discussions, since many enterprise platforms will combine connectivity with edge resources to maximize the applications that can be enabled.
Figure 1 shows how, according to SCF’s Market Status forecasts, we expect the ownership of edge computing nodes, when combined with small cells, to change over the coming year, to support a greater diversity of deployers and business cases. The new deployers will be using a combination of shared spectrum, private spectrum and MNO partnerships.
Figure 1. Ownership of edge/small cell nodes by operator type 2020-2025 (% of nodes)
The Forum’s research found, in a study of 76 MNOs and 36 alternative providers, that their core targets for edge+small cell deployment were very different (see Figure 2). Asked to name their top three near term target markets (for years 1-3 of commercial roll-out) the MNOs most commonly selected video streaming at high quality, VR/AR gaming and mobile broadband services in dense environments such as city centers or venues. The alternative providers, which included enterprise-oriented neutral hosts, cited a far wider range of priorities because most are particularly focused on one or two verticals. Those which were most commonly targeted were smart logistics, smart city services and retail.
Figure 2: Edge+mobile use cases most commonly placed in the top 3 target markets by MNOs and alternative providers (% placing each in the top 3)
On the technical side, priorities for edge computing will be to outline gaps in current standards, which need to be filled in order to simplify and derisk early deployments.
In particular, working groups will discuss how the Forum can work on specifications, alone or with partners, that would address gaps related to multivendor CUPS (control/user plane separation) support. This is a clear gap in the ETSI Multi-access Edge Computing (MEC) standards, which are a core set of specifications for mobile edge deployers, although there may also need to be reference to other standards work, for instance the Industrial Internet Consortium’s OpenFog specs, which have now been adopted by the IEEE.
Industrial IoT applications; services which must support huge numbers of devices or low latency; or critical communications, have all been identified as being significant to social and economic objectives for 5G, and for many industry sectors. But most MNOs openly acknowledge that they are finding it difficult to make a strong business case for any of the new services and will focus on existing mobile broadband use cases for now. SCF believes that, by helping to coordinate and energize a broader set of operators, the needs of more industries can be met in the early years of 5G, while also expanding the MNOs’ opportunities, since they will be able to partner with specialist deployers and neutral hosts.
Many of these new services require a very flexible, virtualized network, which can allocate the particular, and different, resources each application will need dynamically. So as well as business case work, SCF’s efforts to drive a standard way to deploy virtualized, disaggregated networks, which combine compute and connectivity, will be essential to make it practical to address the rising variety of demand for edge computing services.
Even if your organization has not yet been engaged in edge computing technologies or services, the findings above illustrate the reasons why you should engage with these sessions anyway, since edge will quickly become an integral part of the small cell platform and business case. These discussions will ensure you are fully informed about the developments and implications for your business, and enable you to shape the debate according to your particular needs and interests.
Pre-registration is essential. So don’t delay – register today for the London Plenary.