With edge compute, AT&T's Fuetsch sees computer vision technology in your future

The art of the possible seems endless with the edge, the cloud and low-latency 5G applications and services. To wit: AT&T is looking at computer vision technology that could be used in retail stores for social distancing.

Speaking at an investor event Thursday morning, AT&T CTO Andre Fuetsch said by working with cloud companies such as Microsoft, computer vision technology could be used to ensure retail employees and customers are following the new normal for social distancing guidelines.

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In addition to making sure customers are staying 6-feet apart, computer vision technology could also monitor whether employees are wiping down countertops and other COVID-19 related requirements. It could be implemented across a chain of retail outlets for a consistent customer experience.

"This is a great application for computer vision that can actually look, monitor and see," Fuetsch said, according to a Thomson Reuters transcript. "How are employees positioning the point-of-sale systems? As customers are waiting in line, are the employees directing customers to really maintain those distances? Well, that's something that computer vision technology can do quite well.

"But for it to be responsive and fast, you really need to look at edge-type technologies to do that."

Andre Fuetsch, AT&T

Stores don't want to build server closets at every location and data centers could be thousands of miles away, meaning the response times would take too long.

In addition, Fuetsch said software developers currently only have two places where they could develop and see their applications launched. One is on the device—whether that's a computer, smartphone or tablet—while the other is in the cloud.

"Typically, that cloud could be 500, 1,000 miles away from that device," he said. "What the edge does is it gives you a new—think of it as a new resource—location now that developers can now take advantage of.

"You don't have to have all this compute horsepower sitting right in the device. You can now take advantage of not just the cloud compute infrastructure that could be 1,000 miles away, but something much, much closer. And this is a big deal."

Fuetsch said 5G isn't about just speed, it's also about low latency at the edge for services and applications. He said a tiny IoT chip that's less than a centimeter square can connect to WiFi and over 23 cellular bands. It also has a microprocessor and memory.

"With IoT, if you can start connecting everything with little chips like this and do it cost-effectively. The 5G network is very good at highly scaled, dense networks," said Fuetsch, who is also president of AT&T Labs. "WiFi can only support hundreds of connections in a given space. LTE can do thousands. 5G can do millions, and so that's what's really going to open up things. So you'll see (that) in the next release of 5G as it comes down the pipe here."

In April, Microsoft announced it was working with AT&T to bring ultra-low-latency edge compute to joint customers.

"We’re exploring future use cases for edge computing with multiple companies," an AT&T spokesperson said in an email to FierceTelecom. "Our goal is to deploy nationwide 5G this summer, and we’ll likely start to see these applications grow once we’ve hit that milestone."

SDN comes through during COVID-19

Fuetsch also spoke about the resiliency of AT&T's network during the coronavirus pandemic when network traffic surged by 25% on its core backbone within the first 10 days after shelter-in-place policies were instituted in March.

RELATED: AT&T: Damn COVID-19, it's full speed ahead for 2020's goals

AT&T was able to adapt its network for the surges because of its core backbone, which is an MPLS-based network under SDN control.

"We were able to re-route and move capacity where we needed it very quickly," he said. "That's the power of having software in the network. And certainly, software is just becoming more and more part of everyone's day-to-day life, and having the types of controls in the network to adapt and work with that software is becoming more and more important."

AT&T's customers also benefited from its SDN-based network as they sent millions of their employees home to work.

"At the beginning of the COVID pandemic, we saw these huge surges in traffic demand and also traffic (cliffs,)" Fuetsch said. "As people weren't commuting into dense urban metro areas for work, they were staying home, yet they had to video conference in or do whatever they needed to do to perform their duties. And having a software-defined network allowed us to really quickly adapt to those shifts.

"We have a lot of enterprise customers that had to augment their networks, basically ours, so that they could increase their video conferencing capacity and capabilities, and a lot of that is software-based. Instead of physically going out and having to deploy more boxes, all we had to do was just spin up more software instances to meet that demand. So that's what SDN has done for us."

AT&T first outlined its virtualization project back in 2013 as part of its Domain 2.0 initiative. Fuetsch said in addition to the capex savings from its software-defined networking (SDN) effort over the years–as well as breaking up vendor lock-in— there have also been benefits on the opex side.

Fuetsch also reiterated that AT&T was on track to meet its previously stated goal of having 75% of its core network functions virtualized and under SDN control by 2020.

"I'm proud to say we're very close to that goal here and expect to hit it easily by the end of this year," Fuetsch said.