Tower executives split on edge computing opportunity

Alan Bock is a firm believer in the edge computing opportunity. And as a result, he’s leaving his VP job at tower giant Crown Castle to work at Vapor IO, a startup that’s embarking on a major edge computing deployment.

“We have real [edge computing] deployments taking place,” Bock said, explaining that Vapor IO is on the cutting edge of what he believes will be an opportunity bigger than most suspect.

Bock’s belief in edge computing carries with it a significant amount of weight. Bock was previously the VP of corporate development at Crown Castle and helped navigate the company’s investments into fiber and small cells. Today, Crown Castle sits apart from its tower rivals SBA Communications and American Tower with billions of dollars of fiber acquisitions that in part power its large and growing small-cell business.

Bock helped oversee Crown Castle’s initial investment into Vapor IO, and when the startup received its Series C funding round led by Berkshire Partners last month, the company obtained enough cash to fund its plans to build out 13 edge computing sites by the end of 2018, nearly 50 by the end of 2019 and over 100 by the end of 2020.

“Once I knew the company was funded and stable, I knew I had to be a part of this,” Bock said of Vapor IO. “The use cases [for edge computing] were vastly richer than what I had initially thought of.”

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Bock isn’t the only one eyeing the edge computing opportunity. Companies ranging from EdgeMicro to Rigado to Saguna to Nokia have been discussing the potential of edge computing. And operators like AT&T and Verizon are in the midst of researching the opportunity; AT&T has even developed a platform called Akranio that it bills as a connection socket for edge computing applications.

“Edge computing will unleash a cornucopia of opportunities for every size and shape of institution, from governments to grocery stores. Applications will leap from the pages of science fiction and become practical services,” boasted the “State of the Edge” report, produced earlier this year by ARM, Packet, Vapor IO and other edge computing proponents.

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Although some in the tower industry are clearly bullish on the edge computing opportunity, others are decidedly less so.

“There’s a lot of excitement about it [edge computing] … It’s talked about like crazy,” acknowledged Alex Gellman, CEO of Vertical Bridge, the largest private owner and operator of wireless communications infrastructure in the United States. But, he added, “I’m not sure that edge data centers are coming.”

Gellman explained that edge computing can be understood through a simple equation: 5 ms for every 1,000 km. That’s the measurement of network latency over distance, or basically how long it takes a bit of data to travel through 1,000 kilometers of fiber network. “That’s just the speed of light through glass,” Gellman said.

Edge computing promises to significantly lower that latency by installing computing services geographically closer to end users. This would represent a major change from most of today’s computing designs, where queries are sent hundreds or thousands of miles away to be processed in a data center.

“Unquestionably there will need to be more data centers … in order to push the latency down,” Gellman said, but the real question is: “Does that go all the way to the edge of the cell sites?”

“I don’t think that’s known,” he said.

Basically, Gellman argues that some applications will indeed need extremely low latency speeds, enough to push providers to build a handful of data centers in each major U.S. city. But he said it’s not clear whether there will be enough demand for super-fast, real-time computational capabilities to drive companies to invest in building hundreds of tiny data centers at the bottom of every cell tower.

“There has to be applications developed, real time and real response, that require that investment. Because that’s a major investment,” Gellman said. “The typical buildout per square foot for a data center is quite expensive.”

Not surprisingly, edge computing proponents counter those concerns with a range of possible services that would make use of the super low latency speeds provided by edge computing. In their “State of the Edge” report, Packet, ARM and others argued that services ranging from industrial IoT to video games to autonomous cars will make use of edge computing deployments.

“While games usually require low to medium bandwidth, they are extremely sensitive to latency and jitter,” the report stated. “By hosting the game for local players on a micro data center at the infrastructure edge, gaming services can offer a better experience for gamers. The short-distance network connectivity offers faster round-trip-times, fewer points of contention and less opportunity for routing failures which increases both the responsiveness and availability of games.”

Even Gellman’s own Vertical Bridge is making sure it has a position in edge computing. The company last year inked a partnership with data center company DataBank to “develop micro data centers at the base of communication towers that will enable edge computing.”

Thus, Vertical Bridge is ready to move into edge computing, but Gellman said he hasn’t yet seen the need for any major edge computing buildouts.