Mobile edge computing (MEC) is generating a lot of buzz these days because it’s a fundamental part of the fifth generation (5G) mobility architecture. Although that attention typically focuses on how it enables ultra-low latency and ultra-high definition use cases, MEC does far more than just improve the user experience. More importantly, it provides mobile operators the tools for pricing authority coupled with new revenue and market-differentiation opportunities. It also gives them the ability to break free from the status quo. More generally, integrating a MEC platform into a 4G architecture creates the edge internet that bridges the gap to a 5G architecture.
When most people in the telecom industry think about MEC they focus exclusively on how it moves content, applications, compute, and other resources to the network edge to enable faster performance. This will help cellular compete with other technologies for applications that are highly delay sensitive. One example is vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2V/V2I) applications where cellular competitors include technologies such as dedicated short-range communications (DSRC).
But even industry insiders typically are unaware of how much more MEC can do; specifically, how it can enable new business models, revenue opportunities, and sustainable competitive positions for operators. There’s also a widely held misconception about when operators can begin leveraging the edge internet. The fact is that although 5G requires MEC, MEC does not require 5G. The edge internet is already here – on 4G networks.
First Mover Advantages
5G has a fundamentally different architecture from 4G, which means operators will spend the first few years of their 5G rollouts learning all of its nuances. By deploying MEC with 4G first, they get real-world experience with a key part of 5G, freeing them to focus on all of the additional aspects of 5G when that time comes. They also learn about MEC in the familiar environment of 4G, so they can focus on mastering its technology and business models.
The current buzz about 5G also overshadows the fact that 4G isn’t going away anytime soon. It’s going to take the better part of a decade for 5G to approach—let alone rival—4G in terms of geographic coverage, cost structure, and customer base. 4G’s longevity means that it will play a key role in driving MEC’s return on investment. Plus, MEC platforms and solutions deployed over 4G will automatically extend to 5G.
An MEC overlay on 4G can be deployed quickly, inexpensively, and as widely or narrowly as the operator’s business strategy requires. Such an overlay edge internet approach simply plugs into an operator’s existing network and creates a slice that it manages, with virtually no changes to the existing infrastructure, including billing systems. Moreover, the opportunity for proximity clouds to co-exist with origin clouds allows for time-to-market advantage across the board. This means an operator can deploy the edge internet only where it chooses rather than across the entire network, such as in its largest markets first, or in certain cities based on a fit of products-to-markets and the appetites of potential business partners.
This plug-and-play architecture also enables rapid deployments. For instance, in any given location such overlay platforms (and solutions) can take less than an hour of integration and commissioning.
Shifting the Balance of Power
Deploying an MEC solution sooner rather than later also enables first-movers to better compete against other mobile operators and over-the-top (OTT) service providers. The latter have an inherent disadvantage because they don’t own the radio access network (RAN) in 4G or 5G, so they have no way to manage many of the factors that directly affect user experience. In essence, operators who own the RAN have an advantage from decades of experience operating such hyper-distributed connectivity points. After all, the essence of the edge internet is to create a new genre of apps, which can leverage the coexistence of connectivity and computing.
This shifts the balance of power to mobile operators and, in the process, liberates them from the status quo. With all of the edge internet’s performance and quality of service (QoS) capabilities exclusively at their disposal, mobile operators become very attractive business partners that OTT providers need in order to succeed.
In fact, the edge internet makes mobile operators attractive business partners for a wide variety of consumer and enterprise services delivered via a proximate cloud. One example is gaming, such as Google’s Assassins Creed Odyssey – Project Stream. Every millisecond counts in gaming, but game providers have no control over latency and other aspects of a player’s cellular, WiFi, or wired broadband connection.
By partnering with a mobile operator, game providers now can leverage MEC to overcome longstanding problems related to basic physics. For example, instead of having each player’s moves sent to a server across the country, each interaction now involves an MEC node a few miles or blocks away. In the process, those “edge gaming” providers gain a competitive advantage over rivals trying to make do with the traditional OTT model. Edge gaming is an initial 5G service mobile network operators can provide over 4G.
The same concept applies to OTT live TV services such as Sling and PlayStation Vue. To compete against one another, as well as against cable and satellite, these OTT services need to have every channel change happen instantly and for every stream to flow without a single buffer. Consumers have too many options, and no contracts, to put up with problems, which makes edge TV a welcome new solution for live OTT TV providers.
Yet another example is telematics services such as in-vehicle infotainment, navigation, and V2V/V2I. This example also highlights another common misconception: Most people assume that the edge internet’s “edge” is at cell sites, both towers and small cells. But the edge could also be a 4G/5G router in close proximity to a vehicle that supports all of its infotainment, navigation, road hazard and other applications. Regardless of exactly where the edge is, MEC gives vehicle OEMs and their business partners a powerful new set of tools for meeting telematics’ ultra-demanding latency and bandwidth requirements.
The edge internet also enables mobile operators to become major players in mobile advertising — especially immersive ad-units — the format that brands increasingly prefer. More importantly, edge advertising with immersive ad units, coupled with interactivity, has the potential to spark the reconfiguration of an entire industry wherein value creators are rewarded in an equitable fashion.
The bottom line is that MEC is an idea whose time has come. And, for mobile operators struggling to shed the status quo, for advertisers looking for new ways to reach customers, and for OTT providers seeking new ways to stand out in a crowded market — it’s also an idea that can’t come soon enough. The edge internet is here, no more theory, it works.