Editor’s Corner: Sprint, Ericsson—and more—tackle the cloud, edge

Monica Alleven

While mobile operators compete with the larger cloud players for dollars, a lot of questions remain about their ability to do so, both on their own and with partners.

It’s a complicated subject. “As it turns out there’s lots of clouds and lots of edges,” said Rob Tiffany, VP and head of IoT Strategy at Ericsson, during a panel discussion at last week’s 10th Mobile Future Forward (MFF) event organized by Chetan Sharma Consulting.

He should know. Tiffany created an edge computing system when he was founder and CEO of Enterprise IoT before joining Ericsson in 2018. He also was a global technology lead for IoT at Microsoft, where he incubated the Azure IoT cloud platform and co-authored its reference architecture.

While some consider the ultimate edge to be the actual cell phone, Tiffany noted that there could be edges at the cell site and metro data centers. The reason a lot of people went to the edge early in the evolution of IoT was about latency; the edge had to be as close to the machines or source of data as possible, he said.

Monica Paolini, founder and president of Senza Fili, asked the panel about the relationship between edge and cloud. Some talk about the edge cloud or the cloud edge, but how do they co-exist? That immediately triggered another question from the panel: Who remembers the fog?

Bottom line: It’s getting harder to know where the edge begins and the cloud emerges and vice versa.

Wireless carriers and the cloud, edge

Both Verizon and AT&T are heavily involved in providing cloud services. In the case of Sprint, cloud computing and edge go hand in hand, according to CTO John Saw.

“Nobody is going to be closer to a Sprint customer than Sprint,” he said at MFF. Sprint can manage the cell sites to enable edge computing, both for consumer and enterprise customers.

Over time, Sprint is going to replace CDMA, which currently takes up a lot of space in the form of “big honkin’ boxes,” according to Saw. Once those are replaced, “we’re going to have a lot more capacity and space in our locations,” and that’s where it can add edge capabilities, which will be in a much smaller form factor.

Saw said edge computing is still a very nascent technology, but the idea is if you can convert some of these sites to edge compute locations, then you can deliver a more responsive performance to customers. It has “a lot of potential, a lot of possibilities and that’s what we’re looking at.”

As for getting the type of scale they need, he suggested that Sprint might want to partner with the traditional big cloud providers. “We can bring the edge to the cloud provider,” he said, noting he wasn’t advocating for any particular provider.

Sprint already has a relationship with Ericsson for its Curiosity IoT platform, a dedicated, virtualized and distributed core IoT network and integrated operating system. Together with Sprint’s 5G service, the Curiosity IoT core should be able to support all kinds of things, like artificial intelligence, robotics and other systems that require low latency and high bandwidth.

Verizon, AT&T in front

Are mobile operators in the best position to be the cloud providers to consumers due to their proximity to the edge? Yes, according to Bill Stone, VP of Technology Development and Planning at Verizon. Earlier this year, Verizon concluded a successful Multi-access Edge Compute trial in Houston. The operator has the network locations and ability to tie edge computing platforms much closer to the customer than a traditional cloud player. “We are in a good position to leverage edge computing capabilities,” Stone said in a recent interview.

RELATED: Verizon eyes cloud-native container-based tech for network edge

Chris Penrose, who was president of IoT at AT&T but recently was named president of AT&T’s Advanced Mobility and Enterprise Solutions, where he oversees IoT as well as 5G, edge, Wi-Fi, private LTE and more, said during a MFF panel that AT&T sees stadiums as really being a microcosm of all the things that happen in a city, making them essentially smart cities on their own. From parking to retail to public safety, they’ve got it all going on inside their walls.

Just last week, AT&AT announced it’s using its millimeter wave network at the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium to offer fans new ways to interact with the game, including life-size digital versions of star players and live stats overlaid on the field using the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G. Throughout the season, AT&T plans to offer four unique 5G activations for fans to experience.

In July, AT&T announced a broad cloud alliance with Microsoft that includes AI and 5G. The two companies' multi-year alliance includes Microsoft being named as AT&T's preferred cloud provider for non-network applications as part of the telco's broader "public cloud first" strategy. Microsoft also will throw its support behind AT&T's efforts to consolidate its data center infrastructure and operations.

For mobile operators to succeed in the cloud space and for cloud providers to get to the edge, they’re going to need partnerships, according to Paolini. “It’s a potential win-win,” she said. “There’s no single entity that can do it alone. They can try, but they won’t succeed.”

From the cloud provider point of view, they have the cloud and they know storage, processing and more, but networking is not what they’re good at. Operators are good at the network and the communications, but it’s not really their core business to have the cloud. Working together there is a lot of potential for providing both.

Of course, that’s not the only model; there are others and they will all compete. There’s also room for middle players, which is where companies like Synchronoss Technologies come in. The challenge is to find a way to work together for the benefit of everyone. “There is room and the ecosystem is still being developed,” she said.

Enterprises themselves are part of the equation—AT&T for one has been focused on the enterprise for early 5G—and what they decide will determine in a big way where it all lands. Between the service provider and the enterprise, who pays for what?

The enterprise can’t do it alone, just like they don’t do their own electricity or their own plumbing. “I think it’s similar. They need help,” Paolini said. And because there are so many different enterprises out there, “more than one model can work.”—Monica @malleven33 

Article updated to reflect Chris Penrose's new position at AT&T.