Marek’s Take: Partnerships are the key to MEC's success

In early 2021 nearly every discussion with U.S. mobile operators was dominated with talk of the edge, whether it was Verizon’s “Intelligent Edge” or AT&T and its multi-access edge computing (MEC). T-Mobile even started talking about the importance of the edge in April when it announced a collaboration with Lumen Technologies to leverage Lumen’s edge computing platform.

Fast-forward to today and edge appears to have taken the back seat to more pressing issues, like the status of 5G deployments and the pace at which customers are upgrading from 4G to 5G. Edge is still mentioned on earnings calls, but not as frequently.

Some might argue that Covid-19 pushed edge out of the limelight because operators were forced to focus on providing broadband connectivity to the underserved, an issue that became amplified by the pandemic.

However, according to the “2021 State of the Edge” report, which was produced by the Linux Foundation’s State of the Edge research group, the edge ecosystem actually expanded this year to include more potential players and more potential business cases. But, as the report notes, not all these players will succeed. And partnerships will play a key role for those that do.

Navigating the hyperscalers

Wireless operators are still trying to traverse the complicated edge ecosystem. Analyst firm Analysys Mason found that about two-thirds of mobile operators with edge computing plans have announced deals with hyperscale companies. In addition, the research firm noted that because so many operators are making similar deals with the hyperscalers, it’s going to be difficult to differentiate their offerings.

That rings true in the U.S. where Verizon has partnerships with both AWS and Microsoft Azure, and AT&T is collaborating with Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud.

Verizon uses AWS Wavelength, which is Amazon’s cloud computing platform optimized for the edge, to deliver its public edge services. Developers and businesses can use AWS Wavelength to embed their compute and storage inside Verizon’s edge network. The company currently has 13 5G Edge with AWS Wavelength locations across the U.S. and plans to add more locations soon. Verizon says it will make money from this by charging customers for their workloads and dividing up the proceeds with AWS.

RELATED: Verizon bolsters private 5G MEC with AWS

But Verizon also has a private edge computing business model, where customers that want dedicated edge compute infrastructure with low latency and high security can work with the operator and Microsoft Azure.  
During the company’s third quarter earnings call with investors, CEO Hans Vestberg said that Verizon is making progress on both initiatives and the company’s private 5G network business. “All of them are in execution right now. We're working with customers,” Vestberg said, adding that it takes time to build this because it’s an entirely new market.

AT&T was an early proponent of MEC, and in 2019 it cut a deal with Microsoft, called Network Cloud, that made Microsoft’s Azure cloud services available to AT&T’s network edge locations.

And in July AT&T announced a deal with Google, called AT&T Network Edge with Google Cloud, which links Google’s edge to AT&T’s fiber and 5G networks. Similar to Verizon’s deal with AWS Wavelength, the companies said that they hope to have more than 15 Google Cloud zones deployed this year. Plus, earlier this month, AT&T teamed with Microsoft to launch an Azure Edge zone in Atlanta that will offer 5G-connected cloud services from edge facilities. This deal also sounds similar to Verizon’s partnership with AWS Wavelength zones and is intended to target densely populated metro areas where enterprises need low-latency compute resources.

Finally, T-Mobile, which until recently focused primarily on its consumer business and let Verizon and AT&T dominate in the enterprise segment, is now pushing hard to make inroads in the enterprise market and therefore needs an edge compute offering.

The company earlier this year partnered with Lumen Technologies to make Lumen’s edge compute nodes available to T-Mobile’s enterprise customers. Lumen claims its edge network can reach 95% of enterprise locations in North America with 5 milliseconds of latency, which should be a big benefit to T-Mobile’s enterprise push.

RELATED: Lumen strikes edge compute deal with T-Mobile

Already, T-Mobile appears to be benefiting from the partnership. During a Morgan Stanley investor conference earlier this month, T-Mobile Business Group President Mike Katz said that T-Mobile has a number of MEC and private networking trials happening with different potential enterprise and government customers. For example, he said that the Lumen partnership has resulted in a trial with an airline where the airline is using MEC to process a number of tasks while the plane is parked at the gate. “The airline wants network performance and processing capabilities so they can complete a number of tasks in a fixed amount of time,” he said.

Mobile edge compute may not be as hot of a discussion topic as it was earlier in the year, but U.S. mobile operators are still fine-tuning their edge strategies. The next critical step for operators will be to figure out how to differentiate their edge offering from their competitors so they can capitalize on this new growth area.