Edge computing is emerging as a significant opportunity for network operators, and one that can enhance the business case for 4G and 5G in multiple ways. Because the edge cloud is, by its nature, highly distributed, it has clear synergies with small cells.
The natural alliance between the two technologies is particularly strong when it comes to enterprise and industrial networks. These provide many of the most significant commercial opportunities for small cells and EC. High quality connectivity, optimized for the specific enterprise and location, is an important enabler of digital transformation and new services. When combined with the processing power, data storage and analytics of an edge computing platform, the benefits for customers can be greatly amplified.
SCF has published a ground-breaking white paper, setting out the opportunities for combining cellular densification with the edge cloud, and a roadmap to deploy both systems in the most efficient way. The paper, ‘Edge Computing and Small Cell Networks (SCF-234)’ predicts significant adoption of a range of new business models by 2025. These include network services – including edge infrastructure, edge networks, and edge platform-as-a-service (PaaS) – and direct edge application services to subscribers, enterprises and service providers.
The appetite among operators is also clear. In SCF’s upcoming Market Status report 2020, based on surveys of over 100 network deployers, approximately one-third of respondents expected to offer edge networking and PaaS services while nearly half (45%) expected to leverage edge to offer new services direct to their customers. The versatility of an edge/small cell combination is clearly shown by the fact that over 20% of those surveyed expect to support at least two business models by 2025. That figure rises to 27% by 2026.
The highest interest in combining small cells and edge computing was seen in the enterprise environment. However, the requirements of enterprises and vertical sectors vary significantly – as do the stakeholders involved – so it is important that the edge platform is flexible in terms of the services it supports, and the business model. This is described in detail in the paper, with a focus on three use cases for on-premise edge:
- fully private cellular networks (PCNs);
- PCNs that have a roaming relationship with MNO networks;
- PCNs integrated with MNO networks.
As Figure 1 shows, the forecast – based on the deployment intentions of traditional MNOs and other enterprise wireless operators – shows that, in 2020 and 2021, almost half of small cells deployed in company premises will be collocated with edge computing capability, and by 2026, this will rise to 58%. In an increasing number of cases, there will also be a private packet core, implemented to support the company’s own traffic and services priorities. By 2026, 75% of indoor small cells will be deployed with either edge or private core, with around one-third utilizing both.
Figure 1. Number of small cells deployed alongside edge computing in enterprise indoor environments, 2020-2026. Source: SCF Market Status Report 2020
For the operator business case, integrating edge computing capabilities into a small cell network or vice versa brings multiple benefits. When disaggregated networks are being deployed on cloud infrastructure, it greatly improves the return on investment if that infrastructure can also enable new applications for the operator. In the case of small cells, this infrastructure can be highly distributed, and located in the best place to support added value applications for the enterprise.
These may be a service for existing customers, such as simply providing local cellular connectivity to the enterprise networks to supporting better quality video streaming in venues; or enabling a brand new service for an enterprise, particularly those requiring low latency response, real time analytics, or advanced privacy – all well supported by local processing power. In time, this distributed, 5G-connected cloud can form the basis of network slices, supporting even more new experiences and revenue streams.
While the commercial opportunities are clear, this is a new and maturing platform, and it is essential that the small cell/edge combination can be deployed in a simple, low risk and affordable way, with clear roadmaps for future enhancements including 5G.
SCF’s white paper sets out clear recommendations on how to reduce cost and risk, and maximize versatility of the edge platform. Among the recommendations are:
- The edge network must work in concert with the core network via open interfaces to enable a multivendor ecosystem.
- Open and consistent APIs must evolve to enable a broad ecosystem of edge platform services and applications.
- Blueprints and reference designs for open source edge computing platforms are urgently required for growth of the ecosystem.
Design and deployment blueprints must be defined for core use cases in order to optimize the way that small cell/edge synergies can be leveraged – for instance, the way that radio and cloud functionality can be combined in a virtualized environment.
COTS hardware for the edge infrastructure should be based on existing guidelines from organizations such as the TIA and Open Compute Project.
There is plenty of work to be done to ensure these recommendations become central to vendor platforms and operator processes, guaranteeing the best commercial outcome. SCF’s initial studies suggest that current specifications are incomplete, and it will be an urgent priority in the second half of this year, to work with standards organizations, operators and the ecosystem, to validate and help fill the gaps identified in the white paper.
The next step will be to act on the gap analysis and develop a set of harmonized APIs at application, system and network levels, to enable small cells to support edge services in a consistent, easily manageable way.
SCF will also spearhead the deployment of design blueprints for core use cases involving Small Cells and Edge Computing, including work on open source implementations.
Together, this 2020-2021 work area, which has been kicked off with the white paper, will provide deployers with a detailed roadmap for rolling out connected edge infrastructure that benefits from the scale and stability of a harmonized approach.
Based on inputs from a wide variety of deployers and other stakeholders across SCF’s membership, this will provide operators with the reassurance that they can draw on common best practice and agreed specifications, leaving them free to innovate at the service level on this agile, cloud-based platform.
To download the Edge Computing and Small Cell Networks document, along with supporting material, please visit the Edge Computing section on the website.