Small cells and edge compute make a natural partnership

Edge compute is one of the most important developments for mobile operators (MNOs) to consider in their next generation network strategies. There are significant opportunities for MNOs to harness edge compute and combine localized data center (processing, storage and analytics) capabilities with connectivity.

This can result in a range of benefits from improving quality of experience for existing services (e.g. delivering video close to the user); to enabling new services that require very low latency or precise contextual awareness.

However, there are many players in the edge compute value chain, and MNOs must leverage their particular advantages to support a superior user experience and range of services, compared to other service providers. 

Small cells and edge compute go together:

One of those advantages is the existing investment and expertise in a distributed network, which provides a range of locations suited to edge compute nodes. For classic telco applications like video delivery, the central office or macro cell site may suffice as the edge. But SCF believes that the more important drivers of mobile edge compute will be emerging enterprise and IoT use cases, which require low latency and localized analytics or AI processing. Intelligent transport, predictive maintenance, stadium content services, drone applications and many more are examples.

For these use cases, a far more distributed edge is required, and small cells have a vital role to play. Securing locations for edge nodes will come with the same challenges as for small cells – challenges SCF has been instrumental in addressing.

There is strong correlation between operators which have advanced densification programs, and those with high interest in edge compute. These operators will help to drive edge compute forward and accelerate its progress in many industries.

It is not just traditional MNOs which will engage in parallel deployment of dense small cells and edge compute. New service providers are emerging which will provide neutral host platforms, especially for industrial or enterprise use cases; or which will build their own small cell networks, targeting a particular location (e.g. a city) or a particular industry (e.g. manufacturers). The combination of small cells, shared spectrum (e.g. CBRS in the USA) and edge compute will enable new operators to support differentiated services for particular market requirements.

The high level of intent to deploy edge compute in tandem with small cells was highlighted in a major operator survey which SCF conducted at the start of 2018. This found that 79% of operators which are deploying non-residential small cells, or intend to deploy them before 2022, also plan to deploy edge compute before the end of 2022.

 Figure 1. Percentage of operators with small cell deployment plans, which also plan to deploy edge compute 

SCF’s work items and partnerships will help drive edge compute:

It is therefore important for major players in the edge compute value chain to work closely with these MNOs and understand their requirements. SCF is an ideal place to do this, since edge computing is so closely associated with small cells. It features in several major workgroup activities for 2018-2019. Examples of work items which are high on the agenda include:

  • Mapping the edge compute landscape
  • Impact of MEC and NFV on small cell operations
  • URLLC and slicing for 5G small cells (edge compute will be integral to such deployments)
  • Interoperability testing with ITRI in Taiwan including MEC and ONAP

Increasingly, many of SCF’s work items in technology, commercial models and operations will take edge compute into account as an inseparable element of many dense deployments.

This is a complex value chain and SCF provides a valuable way to understand how MNOs are working with different approaches to the mobile edge. SCF works with several of the significant groups which are active in defining edge compute architectures, include ETSI MEC (Multi-access Edge Compute), OpenFog Consortium, and the ONF’s CORD (Central Office Re-architected as a Datacenter).

SCF believes MNOs will adopt a variety of architectures and open APIs to push forward their edge strategies, with the common link being densification. Its work will help to provide all vendors and operators in the value chain with detailed information on architectures, deployment practices and commercial models, as well as a forum to discuss ideas with organizations which are driving the market forward.

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