Tower firm Crown Castle is known for its 40,000 towers, its 60,000 miles of fiber, as well as its vast portfolio of distributed antenna systems (DAS) and small cells. In fact, Crown describes itself as one of the largest wireless infrastructure firms in the world. So why is a global infrastructure company turning its sights toward multi-access edge computing (MEC)?
“We are intrigued by the potential of MEC,” said Alan Bock, vice president of corporate development and strategy at Crown Castle. “We don’t know the impact of it yet, or how it will be deployed.”
But Crown does think that it has some assets that will be critical to making MEC a success. For example, every tower site has a power supply and many of those sites have fiber connectivity. Plus, the company’s small cells, which also have power and connectivity, are typically located in dense urban areas where MEC also makes sense.
One scenario being bandied about by analysts and others is the idea of adding MEC and storage at a tower site or even at a small cell site in a residential building. By adding storage and MEC, the tower site or cell site suddenly begins to look a lot like a small data center. And if it’s a data center, then why not put an x86 server in there and add some application for the tenants of the residential building? “Re-architecting the network with small cells lends itself to edge computing,” said Iain Gillott, president and founder of iGR Research, which recently published a report on MEC, which he compares to being as big an opportunity as software-defined networking (SDN) or 5G.
For Crown the opportunity would likely involve renting space and perhaps fiber connectivity to operators to make these mini-data centers operational. “We would provide the space for the operator,” said Bock. “They would provide the content or whatever they want there.”
But Crown isn’t the only company exploring the mini-data center concept. Crown also is a minority investor in VaporIO, which plans to offer micro-data centers at the base of cell towers. The initiative, called Project Volutus, is currently being deployed in two cities, one of which is Chicago. VaporIO Founder and CEO Cole Crawford said the company is working with electronics manufacturer Flex (formerly Flextronics) to scale its product and will announce more cities next year.
Like Crown Castle, VaporIO sees an advantage to positioning the company’s micro-data center technology at towers so it can take advantage of existing rack space, power supply, fiber connectivity, and other shared infrastructure to reduce costs.
Crawford said that although it’s taking some time to educate the market on the advantages of MEC, companies are starting to see the need for this. “For companies developing low latency apps for end user termination on the mobile network, this requires a much more dynamic Internet,” Crawford said. “MEC promises that.”
Crawford said that having Crown as an investor is an advantage for his company because they have the tower portfolio, the fiber connectivity, and the experience of working with a variety of municipalities.
And he likens the network edge to the tower business, where location is critical. “If you need low latency and you need a big geographic distribution, you are talking about fiber and real estate.”
Correction: This article was updated to include Crown Castle’s 60,000 miles of fiber.