The role of Edge Computing in 5G

By Iain Gillott, President of iGR


One of the most common questions we get is “what does 5G mean for edge computing?”

In our view, the question should be reversed to “what does edge computing mean for 5G networks?”

And if we go a little further, do we need edge for 5G and when will we see large scale edge computing deployments in mobile networks?

Let’s answer the first question: what does edge computing mean for 5G?

The reality is that 5G will not be able to meet the performance goals of very low latency and massive broadband without edge computing, simply because it takes time for data to travel over the fiber networks connecting the radios on the towers to the network core.

Move the application or content closer to the radio at the edge of the network and network latency is reduced.

Put in some high performance computer hardware and radios that prioritize traffic and the 5G latency goals can be met.

In short, 5G needs edge computing.

But edge compute solutions are being deployed today around the world.

The majority are deployed in industrial environments and address a wide range of application needs, from aggregating existing sensors and monitoring systems to transforming manufacturing environments.

The radio access (from the edge compute platform to the device) can either be Wi-Fi or LTE, depending on the customer need.

This is important – edge computing does not have to wait for 5G networks – edge compute can be, and is being, deployed today.

So edge computing does not need to wait for 5G.

Obviously, edge computing is not widely deployed in either industrial environments or mobile networks.

Even in a standalone, private network environments, examples are limited.

But they are growing quickly, as more and more companies explore the options and realize the benefits.

Retail, industrial, transportation and warehousing, and utilities are major verticals where we see a lot of activity around edge computing.

More work is needed on various parts of the edge infrastructure, especially the interface back into the mobile operator core network (if this is needed) but the pace of development is rapid.

iGR expects that industrial and enterprise edge computing deployments will increase significantly in the next two to three years.

The other major opportunity for edge computing is to put solutions at the edge of mobile networks – edge computing for applications and content at the base of the cell tower (or other suitable location), as close to the radio as possible.

This would allow the mobile operator to host or provide a range of applications and services that benefit from low latency, as well as reduce the amount of data traffic that needs to be sent back to the core network.

As well as improving the overall consumer mobile experience, edge computing can be used to reduce network transport costs for the mobile operator – in short, money is saved by processing data at the edge rather than transporting it back to the core.

For consumers, the biggest benefit would be a noticeable increase in the response of the mobile network, due to the reduction in latency.

Assuming TV and movies were cached at the edge, video streaming would start on mobile device almost instantaneously.

And a range of new applications and services, from autonomous vehicles to network-based AI would be enabled.

The hype machine is well engaged around 5G at present – it seems every article is about the promises and capabilities of 5G whether realistic or not.

But edge computing is almost being under-hyped and certainly the importance of the new edge architectures is not often highlighted.

But make no mistake: 5G cannot succeed with edge computing.

Yet edge compute does not have to wait for 5G and significant investment is currently being targeted at new edge architectures and solutions.