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20 March 2019

SK Telecom sets the pace with its distributed, enterprise-focused edge

Most operators are still struggling with the business model for edge computing, but with characteristic forward thinking, SK Telecom has already unveiled an open edge system which is designed to support a range of commercial services, including a business-to-business platform for enterprises.

SK Telecom says its particular implementation of a mobile edge computing architecture can reduce latency by 60% in 5G applications that require rapid response times, such as robotics control. It calls its platform MEC but it does not fully align with the ETSI MEC (Multi-access Edge Computing) architecture.

Although the 5G air interface will reduce latency between cell sites and devices from around 25 milliseconds in LTE to 8ms, that does not address the delay as the signal passes between the cell site and the centralized baseband unit, in a virtualized RAN architecture. That is why SK Telecom believes data resources need to be placed right at the cell site and will install micro-data centers at base station and service router locations  – by contrast with many operators, such as BT, wich claim that a network edge that reaches out to the macro cell sites is more distributed than anyone needs. The Korean MNO will also put edge cloud resources in some central offices (increasingly being repurposed as cloud centers to support functions such as virtualized core and vRAN baseband units).

The operator is targeting applications such as AR/VR, cloud gaming, autonomous driving and fleet management, and real time live broadcasting to extend its own revenue streams. But it will also open up the platform to businesses ‘as a service’, to enable enterprises to launch their own mobile edge services,tailored to their individual models.

To encourage enterprises to make this move, it is releasing an applications programming interface (API) to help them develop their own 5G edge-based services, in areas that require high quality of service, latency reduction and security.

“By opening up the 5G Mobile Edge Computing Platform, SK Telecom will secure the basis for expanding the MEC-related ecosystem and accelerating the release of 5G services,” said the operator’s CTO, Park Jin-hyo, in a statement. “SK Telecom will join hands with diverse companies throughout the globe to boost the adoption of MEC-based services.”

At the recent Mobile World Congress, SK Telecom showed a number of edge-focused demonstrations, including one with Deutsche Telekom’s subsidiary MobiledgeX, with which the Korean firm has a close strategic alliance. The pair showed an industrial augmented reality service.

MobiledgeX is developing middleware to manages edge computing assets and enable third party applications to use them, with the Silicon Valley unit hoping to set a de facto industry standard and so accelerate the uptake of edge computing across many sectors.

SK Telecom is also working with the Facebook-backed Telecom Infra Project to stimulate a broad ecosystem for mobile edge developers.

The company has not quantified the number of micro-data centers it plans to roll out in the first phase, but presumably this will be somewhat tied to its progress in extending 5G. The three Korean MNOs have been deploying 5G, mainly in urban areas, and offer some limited enterprise services already, though their planned full-scale switch-on on April 5 looks likely to be delayed by a few weeks as they wait for more devices to be approved.

Whatever the pace of edge roll-out, SK Telecom’s plan looks to be leagues ahead of the progress for most operators, as Rethink’s recent study ‘MNOs look to MEC to deliver first class 5G services’. That found that the majority of MNOs are interested in the potential to combined edge computing with 4G and 5G, but are divided in how far they can monetize this. There is a relatively simple case to deploy storage, data processing and analytics capabilities on their existing locations near the telco network edge – central offices or macro cell sites, or even small cell sites in future – and then use this to enhance the services they already provide. High quality video streaming, low latency for augmented reality gaming and hyper-personalized marketing are common examples of extensions to their existing model, enabled by edge.

However, the far bigger opportunity lies in the enterprise, and the enterprise and industrial edges are very diverse and do not necessarily align well with the telco edge. For one thing, many industrial edge applications require indoor, on-premises resources, and most MNOs have been poor at getting their mobile networks deep inside buildings. Operators risk finding that cloud providers such as AWS, or specialized vertical market service providers, have seized the best place in the value chain, leaving the MNO merely offering connectivity (or not even that, if the industrial connections are in shared spectrum).