Crown Castle close to launching edge compute services with its cell sites

Tower operators have been evaluating their options in emerging networks such as 5G for some time. Some, like Crown Castle, have been enthusiastic about adding small cell, WiFi, and IoT network sites to their portfolios, even though these have significantly different investment cycles and operational challenges to those of macro towers. Now the integration of edge compute processors with mobile networks could enhance the densification model for the towercos, giving them a step into the cloud infrastructure space if they can combine the management of distributed processing with that of small cell sites.

Crown Castle now thinks it is in a good position to move into data center services. Last year, it took a stake in Vapor IO, a start-up which had recently announced its ‘data center as a platform’ offering. Vapor IO’s proposition is to offer fully managed micro data centres at the base of cell towers and other cell sites, to allow MNOs and cloud or webscale providers to deliver edge cloud applications efficiently and intelligently.

Crown Castle has clearly been weighing up the potential to add value to its macro and small cell site and fiber deals, by including MEC (Multi-access Edge Computing) resource as well. The more assets which can be aggregated, managed and monetized at each location in the network, the better the economics for the towerco or other neutral host.

Crown Castle has made a string of acquisitions recently to strengthen its ability to offer a full small cell platform including fiber backhaul and potentially distributed cloud compute platforms. This will be important to enable towercos to extend their macro site model, rather than losing out to other neutral host providers, such as cablecos. Crown Castle’s small cell business comprises 16% of total revenue, and generates 6% ROI, which it intends to reach 10% as it adds second tenants to small cell installations.

It has over 40,000 towers across the US plus 60,000 miles of fiber, resulting from several acquisitions, and a growing small cell site network which already numbers tens of thousands of nodes. Alan Bock, VP of corporate development and strategy, said in an interview that the firm has spent almost five years examining how to diversify its assets but still leverage its familiar business model – real estate investment trust (REIT).

“Data centers were of interest to us, but we were trying to figure out, what could Crown add to the mix? How could we add value to that and not just do what cable and others are doing in terms of centralized data centers?” he told LightReading. “We started looking at the possibility of combining our distributed real estate assets along with our fiber to provide for edge data centers.”

Other Crown Castle executives suggest that deployments could start early next year and Vapor IO is likely to be at the heart of the push. The start-up provides the Vapor Chamber, an enclosure measuring 9×9 feet, which supports up to 150 kilowatts of server equipment. These could be deployed at the base of towers and fed by the fiber, enabling Crown Castle could support operators or cloud providers which want to deliver edge-based services such as video content delivery, or those with low latency requirements, such as connected car applications.

The sites could also host gateways for low power wide area networks like LoRa, to support smart city networks, and help enable localized Cloud-RANs. “From the carriers’ perspective, a lot of them are moving toward C-RAN configurations and I think these make very attractive locations for that as well,” said Bock.