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4 December 2019

DT and AT&T show how telcos can succeed in the edge, despite barriers

We have often questioned the comfortable telco notion that they are bound to make a success of edge computing because their physical assets – cell sites, central offices and so on – map so well to the locations needed for an edge cloud.

Operators do have a good set of sites, on which they could build cloud infrastructure, or support third parties to do so. But there will be many applications that need a very different set of locations – particularly indoor-heavy ones – or will require added value services that operators are not well-placed to provide. Many operators are over-optimistic about just how far the sites alone will take them in the edge market. But those which invest in the right services portfolio, and in key infrastructure such as an advanced distributed core, will be able to carve out a place in the enterprise sector which will go further than just connectivity alone.

Deutsche Telekom (DT) is very aware of the potential threat from alternative, enterprise-centered 5G service providers, since the German regulator decided to allocate private spectrum to industrial specialists (see separate item). It is responding with increased activities to explore private enterprise or campus networks, which provide localized connectivity optimized for the business customer, often combined with distributed packet core and edge computing resources, to support a wide range of applications.

DT’s IT and systems integration arm, T-Systems, has developed a platform which could prove a valuable asset for its mobile and telecoms stablemates. Called EdgAIR, this supports low latency, secure edge-based services on a campus basis and comes with data tools called Edge Analytics.

“In combination with Time Sensitive Networks (TSN) and a very good service level agreement, our managed platform EdgAIR can meet requirements such as real time control of machines in a production hall,” said Albert Kroisleitner, senior product manager for edge platform and solutions at T-Systems.

DT believes EdgAIR will be an important source of competitive edge in the campus environment. One early customer is lighting firm Osram, which has a systems based on LTE and EdgAIR, with plans to migrate to 5G in future. The network supports applications including production, logistics, building automation, automotive and energy.

EdgAIR can support an entirely self-contained, secure network or link to the public in a hybrid approach. It is based on OpenStack open source cloud infrastructure and its architecture has been devised to be ready to support Kubernetes containers and microservices. The applications, mainly IoT-related, can be deployed as virtual machines or containers via standard interfaces and T-Systems supplies the platform in a range of sizes and form factors, from pole-mounted to ruggedized or standard racks.

DT is running edge cloud computing in four of its central offices in Germany with a fifth location planned this year, to support customer trials. In the longer term it will convert

900 locations in Germany into edge cloud centers, or cloudlets, which will host distributed core as well as other virtual network functions (VNFs) for DT’s own network, and could also support customer or partner applications. The operator is using its own MobiledgeX as the platform for its edge applications development and deployment.

AT&T has also been an advanced exponent of the combination of edge computing and cloud-based connectivity to enable a differentiated service platform to help telcos improve their enterprise position. Its deepening relationship with Microsoft Azure, originally announced in July, is a key element of this strategy, and last week, the two companies were sharing more details of their progress.

They have opened previews of their Network Edge Compute (NEC) technology for selected partners in Dallas, with Los Angeles and Atlanta set to follow early next year. This “weaves Microsoft Azure cloud services into AT&T network edge locations closer to customers”, as the partners put it. AT&T recently switched on a 400Gbps 5G connection between Dallas and Atlanta to support applications such as advanced gaming.

“With our 5G and edge computing, AT&T is collaborating uniquely with Microsoft to marry their cloud capabilities with our network to create lower latency between the device and the cloud that will unlock new, future scenarios for consumers and businesses,” said Mo Katibeh, CMO at AT&T Business, in a statement. “We’ve said all year developers and businesses will be the early 5G adopters, and this puts both at the forefront of this revolution.”

Gaming is the initial application for most telco edge initiatives – augmented reality and fully interactive games benefit from low latency; the sites required map well to telco locations, unlike many industrial use cases with their on-premises infrastructure requirements; and many MNOs have existing partnerships with games and content providers. So, DT has trials with Niantic, while AT&T and Azure are working with

Game Cloud Network, which has created a 5G app called ‘Tap & Field’. This uses Azure PlayFab services to support a game in which users race in near-real time in various track and field events.

Game Cloud Network CEO Aaron Baker said: “AT&T and Microsoft are building the perfect environment for game developers to create amazing new possibilities for gamers. 5G and edge computing have the potential to radically change how we play together and launch new business opportunities for brands and game publishers.”

AT&T has been enhancing its telco cloud to support Azure, and Microsoft it helping it to fulfil its aim of being a “public cloud-first” company by 2024, at least when it comes to IT and business support applications. Network functions such as virtualized RAN and core are moving to the cloud too, but are likely to stay on private infrastructure until the results of the IT transition are seen.