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5G to Help Telcos Establish an Edge Presence

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5G and edge go hand-in-hand because of 5G’s lower latency and the higher bandwidth. Together they will enable a new class of applications across industries.

The markets for 5G and edge computing are rapidly converging. Telcos are poised to leverage both technologies to move beyond being a simple connectivity provider to an enabler of innovative applications.  

RTInsights recently sat down with Douglas Lieberman, Global Solutions Director, Dell Technologies, to discuss how 5G enables edge, how telcos can use 5G and edge, and what types of applications we might see when using both. Here is a summary of our discussion.

What is the 5G telco journey?

RTInsights: What is the 5G telco journey?

Lieberman: The 5G telco journey is about an evolution from the current state of the telco industry focusing in large part on connectivity around 3G and 4G and taking that to the next level. The change is needed because of things that have happened over the last decade. For example, many telcos are now content creators, content distributors, and more. On the connectivity side, 5G enables the telcos to provide a new route to customers for new workloads and new applications that we haven’t been able to address previously in the wireless space for end devices. The increased speed, the lower latency, the performance guarantees that you can get with 5G, and the way you can control it, allow you to tailor the network to achieve what you want it to do, based on a workload.

Previous implementations of wireless technology were pretty much fixed. What you got is what you got. Wherever you were, if you got a 4G LTE connection, that’s what you got, and whether you were running your Facebook app or a video, you got the same kind of connectivity. While that worked well in the past, today, we have things like the explosion of video to your device, and people want to leverage other technologies on top of it. Telcos must leverage technologies including buffering and use of content distribution networks that move data closer or distribute them worldwide to get them properly aligned to where the maximum return will be, reducing back-end bandwidth on the network.

The next generation of 5G will have some new applications that we probably haven’t even identified yet. And those applications are going to be the killer apps of the next decade. So, when the smartphones were announced and became a real thing back in the early 2000s, no one had even envisioned yet what you would be able to do with them. No one thought you’d have phones with three cameras on it, would take 3D pictures, and do augmented reality – on a phone. All these apps have increasingly pushed the limits of what the end devices can do. And through that, have really driven the journey of what people are expecting out of the next generation, and with 5G, whose use expands far beyond just the mobile device we have in our pocket. We’ve been talking about things like IoT and edge computing for a long time, but in the 4G space, it was more of a conversation about the art of the possible, rather than the implementation of the here and now.

What 5G will do is expand the breadth of what telcos can support in the wireless space beyond those end mobile devices. It will let telcos support enterprise, industrial, retail, and commercial applications that were possible within the 4G space but weren’t practical in many places. 5G also enables new applications. When you talk about automation, industrial synchronization, smart cars, all these technologies require much higher bandwidth, much lower latency, and a guaranteed amount of what I can get out of the network with tailored access to that network. That’s what 5G is providing.

What I’m trying to say is the 5G telco journey is about evolving the telcos from being a bulk wireless bandwidth provider to being a partner for your business and to provide you with a custom experience in the wireless space to meet the specific demands of an application that you may have. Some of those applications we know about today. But many of them are going to evolve and be created out of the implementation of 5G. When they first put gigabit fiber into people’s homes, it was considered a gimmick. Nowadays, those of us who have gigabit are thrilled and can’t imagine that we would be able to survive without it when we’ve got four people working from home, all doing Zoom meetings at the same time, plus having whatever else we have running over the network.

Eventually, the technology expands to fill the space, or the solutions expand to fill the space that technology has provided. When 5G is available across the entire country and across the world, applications and use cases will fill that space and quickly leverage to the maximum capacity of what’s there. For the telcos, that’s going to mean looking at different business models and adjusting to how they deal with enterprises and customers to provide a customized experience.

How does 5G enable Edge computing?

RTInsights: How does 5G enable Edge computing?

Lieberman: 5G and edge go hand-in-hand because of 5G’s lower latency and the higher bandwidth. The much higher bandwidth is driving the need to put capabilities as close to the edge as possible. And by the edge, we’re talking about how close to where the wireless signal becomes electrons, do we produce and distribute services and capabilities that work in concert with the devices that are connecting. Whether those devices be mobile phones, cars, IoT sensors, or something else, 5G and the network capabilities enable the telco to customize and provide specific processing for that data. So, in the past, if you look at the previous networks, they were pretty much fixed in the way they work. Whether they were packet cores or circuits, how they operated was very much locked in from the day they were built and implemented.

In contrast, 5G is being implemented using open technologies and in many cases off the shelf components like servers, storage, and virtualization. Because of this, it is enabling the telcos to dynamically adjust the network to address the demands of applications running on the network at any given time. Using network virtualization and slicing of the network, the telcos can truly provide capabilities at the edge and across the entire network – essentially edge-to-edge. So, as the radio signal comes into the tower, instead of having to send that data all the way back to a central data center before being processed and sent back out to the edge, they’re able to effectively bend the pipe. That means they can process the data locally at the tower and then send the data back out. Such an approach enables all sorts of new capabilities that hadn’t been fully leveraged in the past.

5G is an ideal enabler for augmented reality and smart cars. In these applications, information must be received, processed, and returned as soon as possible, as near to real-time as possible, for safety, efficiency, and effectiveness. An example I’ve used a few times is direct marketing to people. If you’re walking down the street and you walk in front of a storefront, a store in the future might want to provide directed marketing to you specifically, so not everyone sees the same signs. On your phone or in the store, if there is  some sort of a window display, they would want to respond to you in the few seconds that it takes for you to walk in front of their store –  they want to be able to recognize who you are, collate content that would be interesting to you, and deliver that content to you.

Those kinds of things are only possible through 5G with its lower latency and the higher bandwidth combined with Edge. They’re able to place information and processing as close to the edge as possible to get that marketing response as I’m walking past the storefront, rather than after I’ve already passed it. The combination of the open network design, off the shelf components, virtualization, and all the different capabilities that are going into building these new 5G networks leads to the point where you’re effectively building what’s called an edge cloud. The telcos are building all these edge clouds – effectively thousands or tens of thousands of micro clouds. They are sitting near the edge to do all the processing and the network virtualization and things like applying the slicing and the segmentation of the data from the moment it enters the network to the moment it leaves. Because of that, it’s creating the opportunity to also leverage the automation, the orchestration, and the control of those edge clouds that exist everywhere and put them together into a coordinated cloud across all those nodes. In addition to providing network functions, network function virtualization, and all the things they need to run the 5G network, they also run end-user applications and workloads.

Enterprises can build applications that run near the Edge or on the Edge in either unused capacity or additional capacity, which would be built and orchestrated with the rollout of 5G. That additional capacity and those workloads will let companies deploy applications to directly address real-time type needs for end customers like augmented reality. So, as I’m walking down the street, I’m possibly getting popups. If I’m a tourist and I’m walking down the street, I can look at my phone, and it’s bringing up real-time insights about all the things I’m seeing while I’m walking down the street.

We’re not talking about just playing Pokemon and the latest gaming applications. If I’m a tourist in London and I’ve opted into an app, as I’m walking by some major landmarks, as I’m walking by, without any delay whatsoever, I’m getting in real-time all sorts of information popping up about what’s in front of me, how long are the lines, what’s the cost to get in, and what their hours are. And as opposed to being just a search, where it takes a couple of seconds to get the response, the application is layering the information on top of the map in real-time with real pictures. At the same time, it can be streaming coordinates back to my friends or my group that I happen to be with, and possibly generating through augmented or through artificial intelligence social media posts about what I’m doing.

All these things are interesting ways that the edge will change how we view technology. 5G is what’s driving the implementation of edge clouds. These edge clouds are the underlying network infrastructure required for 5G. And because this infrastructure will be there, it can also be extended to be used for enterprise and business use cases.

How do Edge and 5G help telcos transform?

RTInsights: Beyond connectivity and phones, how do Edge and 5G help telcos transform?

Lieberman: 5G provides opportunities for telcos to be addressing the market in a whole different way. In the 2G, 3G, 4G space, it was just a kind of a bulk offering. I buy some bandwidth, get X number of gigabits per month, or so many messages, and whatever fits into that application fits into that application. Whether that’s a phone, your connected car, an infotainment system in cars, or mapping applications, it was pretty much, if it fits in the bandwidth, it’s there. 5G expands that aperture quite significantly. And if you think about it, it even has broader applications, for example, let’s talk about home broadband.

Up until now, you could run your home broadband off of a 4G or an LTE connection. The performance you would get out of that is dwarfed by what you would get for wired connections. So, if you have a one-gigabit connection running into your house, either through FIOS or through Google gigabit internet services, those connectivity demands dwarf what you could support from the wireless side. In many cases, the same telco is running the wire and providing the wireless connectivity. But if you think about the cost of the infrastructure of running fiber to someone’s home versus putting up a tower and serving many homes, 5G now becomes really, really interesting for a telco. It offers a telco the ability to deliver broadband type capabilities without having the cost and expense of running all those hard-line cables into people’s homes (and prevents the issue of losing connectivity when planting a tree).

Additionally, 5G has some very interesting implications. For example, consider people that live in areas like in the Northeast where there’s a lot of snow every winter, and we lose power, and we lose connectivity regularly. Wireless keeps running because of the infrastructure and the way it is deployed. When you lose power, or you lose internet connectivity at your home because your power is out, you generally can still get your wireless signal from the telcos. You have a much more resilient and reliable capability.

Take the current situation that we’re in due to the pandemic. Things changed drastically earlier this year with most people working from home. Going forward, all the estimates are that we’re not going to go back 100% to where we were before. The transition to work from home changes how we think about what our home is.

In the past, our home was a consumer type environment. Only 3.2% of the workforce in the US worked from home more than 50% of the time. Going forward, they’re expecting that even when this whole situation is resolved, that 30% or more of the workforce is going to be working from home more than 50% of the time. What that means is that your home is now no longer just your home, your home is your office, and it’s your school for your kids. Because of that, the types of services that a telco needs to be offering into the home are changing drastically. As an example, if I had connectivity from my provider that could optimize and provide quality of service for Zoom calls over YouTube, I would do that in a heartbeat, right?

If I had the opportunity as an enterprise to be able to say, look, I don’t want my workers who are working from home to have their devices connected to an unprotected home internet connection. Instead, I’m going to provide everyone with a 5G connection in their house, either directly on the laptop or via a hotspot that connects back into my corporate enterprise. Such a setup, leveraging 5G slicing, provides clean internet access for those devices, as though they were sitting in the office, but while they’re sitting at home. People need cyber protection and quality of service. The service needs to ensure that when I’m having a critical Zoom meeting with a customer, my kid playing Fortnite won’t take all the bandwidth causing jitter or frozen screens during my meeting.

Moving forward, as working from home becomes more of a normal situation, and your house is your office, we will drastically change how we think about connectivity. It’s now no longer going to be just a pipe. It’s going to be, what other services can I get around it? What guarantees can I get? How can I custom shape that connectivity to meet the demands of what I need to do as an employee working from home? And that’s connectivity. Think of the benefits 5G can deliver for other end applications like the Internet of Things, smart sensors, and digital cities.

The promise of 5G is the ability to use the same radio technology, regardless of whether I’m inside, outside, at a stadium, at home, walking down the street, or more. As we all know, today we bounce back and forth between Wi-Fi and our 4G/5G connectivity, depending on where you are.

If you are inside a building, generally speaking, you’re hunting for that Wi-Fi hotspot, and you’re using a different mechanism on your phone to do that. One of the promises of 5G would be to make it easier for consumers to be always-on, always-connected everywhere. If you can reduce the number of different ways they connect and it’s just more seamless, it becomes easier. And then, with some of the capabilities of 5G and the ability to provide profiles and slicing and different rules to how you operate, as you’re roaming around, you have a greater opportunity for controlling how that connectivity works, enabling much more interaction between devices.

In the 4G world, a lot of end devices were independent. In the 5G world, devices are now going to interact not just with the cloud and with things that are fixed, but with each other. If you think about industrial automation, where you have different robots on a factory line needing to integrate and interact with very time-sensitive motions – those things are not possible in the 4G world. The timing is not guaranteed, the latency is too high, and you can’t provide an SLA [service level agreement] for that service.

5G has extremely low latencies. We’re talking about going from 20 milliseconds down to one millisecond in some cases and gigabits of bandwidth. Interconnected industrial automation machines could use 5G as a mechanism for connectivity and be time-synced to provide the necessary level of automation between them. This is also a key driver for telemedicine, augmented reality, remote surgeries, smart cities, and others.

As enterprises want to leverage 5G to the maximum extent, they will start with the telcos because, ultimately, there’s licensed and unlicensed band spectrum. By going with a telco, you’re able to customize that experience both in your building privately, plus your regular usage out in the public. Ultimately, this results in a more tuned service to exactly what you need it to do, rather than just dealing with whatever you get.

What does the future hold?

RTInsights: What’s in store for the future? What are some of the possible applications and services that we’ll see, thanks to 5G and edge?

Lieberman:  5G and edge will build the platform upon which some killer app will evolve, and the technology will expand to fill the space. In the 3G space, it wasn’t possible to do streaming video and watching MASH episodes when you’re sitting at the airport, but with 4G and LTE, that became not only possible but the norm. Video was the killer app for 4G and drove the massive expansion of bandwidth that people use. As bandwidth was provided, the applications expanded to consume it.

With 5G and edge, we will have newly developed apps that will absolutely consume whatever bandwidth is provided by that service. Those apps are going to be enabled and made better by using 5G. We might see things like real-time 3D sporting events with augmented reality or virtual reality, where you can interact with the game as though you were playing. And so, you’re no longer just watching the game, but you are in some way on the field and maybe participating virtually in what-if scenarios or seeing if you would have been able to catch that football that was thrown by Nick Foles in the end zone.

These are some crazy ideas, but through 5G and Edge, they become much more realistic. 5G provides the bandwidth it takes to stream that amount of video. The real-time response to what you’re doing in the augmented reality space or virtual reality space will require edge processing and will drive interesting new capabilities.

Shorter-term, 5G and edge will be used for things like autonomous and connected cars. In Israel, I recently read that they’re installing the first, basically self-charging public transportation through the streets. So, they’re aligning the different bus routes with charging capability embedded underneath the street. The buses charge as they drive and will no longer be required to go back to charging stations between routes.

If you combine that with 5G and edge capabilities, with the lower latency, now you’re getting closer to having the ability to have fully autonomous, self-charging, always running, 24×7 bus services. They would be able to get the data they need about traffic and change in routes. They could use the data for optimization. If there’s no one waiting at a stop, maybe we can skip that stop or take a better route. There also are industrial automation examples.

In these near-term applications, we expand beyond what we know as Wi-Fi today because 5G offers better throughput than today’s Wi-Fi. Now, Wi-Fi 6, which has more bandwidth, is coming out. 5G and Wi-Fi keep leapfrogging each other. But I go back to when I was talking about the desire to have a unified wireless profile. 5G will enable things like people sitting in stadiums and dynamically interacting with what’s going on, without the constraints of what Wi-Fi provides today. Certainly, when you’re in a stadium with 50,000 people, you can get a Wi-Fi signal, and you can do a certain amount of interactivity. But it’s limited because of the constraints of that part of the spectrum and the bandwidth that can be provided, and by the way, the Wi-Fi protocol is written, and a lot of contention happens there. Additionally, the infrastructure required for large-scale 5G deployments is significantly less than what would be required for Wi-Fi – in our stadium for example, a Wi-Fi implementation would require dozens if not hundreds of access points, where 5G will require only a handful of radios.

With 5G, it’s meant to be a carrier-grade wireless signal that can support connectivity for dense populations.  You’ll have a much more interactive experience in those stadiums and in connecting up campuses, schools, restaurants, hotels, and apartment buildings – anyplace there is a very high density of people in a very small amount of space.

5G by itself will offer a lot of improvements about how connectivity works in those places. What we’re going to see is companies building innovative new applications. They will take advantage of the lower latency and higher bandwidth that run at the edge and provide instantaneous results and real-time applications back to the end-users. It will enable new applications and new capabilities that we don’t even know how to talk about because they haven’t been invented yet.

So, we don’t know what the killer application for 5G is going to be. I guarantee you that in five years, when we have a follow-up to this interview, we’re going to be looking back and talking about, “Wow, that was an amazing app.”

It’s going to be an interesting ride over the next five to 10 years, and what we look at as the role of the telco in that, in how they provide those capabilities and the journey they’re on, we’re going to see a complete transformation of telcos. They will go from a type of utility supplier that provides just bandwidth to companies to be partners to enterprises. They will help them build applications and build services around the connectivity that drive end-to-end value and not just pure bandwidth. Ultimately, we’ll see telcos embracing the enterprise, commercial, and consumer markets and becoming much more of a partner in that ecosystem.

To learn more, please register here to join Doug in a live webinar on Tuesday, November 3, 2020, at 11:00AM ET as he and Adam Mendoza discuss, “The evolving Telco landscape: Driving organizational success.”  

Salvatore Salamone

About Salvatore Salamone

Salvatore Salamone is a physicist by training who has been writing about science and information technology for more than 30 years. During that time, he has been a senior or executive editor at many industry-leading publications including High Technology, Network World, Byte Magazine, Data Communications, LAN Times, InternetWeek, Bio-IT World, and Lightwave, The Journal of Fiber Optics. He also is the author of three business technology books.

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