Telco edge platforms: Balancing speed vs value

Defining the edge

Edge computing has been hailed as key to help deliver the promises of 5G, enabling transformative use cases and experiences. Significantly for mobile service providers, deriving value from their networks and presence at the edge remains an aspiration for a new source of revenues and a more favourable position in the value chain. There is strong belief that this needs to exceed what was achieved with 3G and 4G, where OTT players built entire businesses through successful services using centralised platforms leveraging fast, ubiquitous internet access. Mobile operators remain hopeful that they can evolve from ‘dumb pipes’ and derive more value from dynamic connectivity services, value added platforms, and partnerships.

The edge means different things to different people, so it is useful to define terminology and clarify the scope of this report. We understand the edge to refer to compute, storage and networking infrastructure, facilities, software, and services which exist physically or architecturally between typically non-telco cloud data centres and end-devices. This report will focus on the ‘telco edge’ for both mobile and fixed line telecoms operators.  The term MEC (initially ETSI’s Mobile Edge Computing which evolved to Multi-access Edge Computing) has historically been used for telco edge predominantly with a focus on deployment in the access network, however as we will see its use has somewhat broadened as telcos initially deploy edge computing more centrally.

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The edge continuum spans between end devices and hyperscale cloud

It is common practice to define an edge continuum in a diagram such as below which shows the different edge locations between an end device and the hyperscaler cloud. Typically, the physical distance, the number of network hops, and network latency will increase the further the edge location shifts to the right.

The edge continuum

edge platform

In considering the telco edge, we will primarily be focussed on the network edge, consisting of data centres logically situated in telco’s access, transport, and core network facilities. The on-premise edge (sometimes referred to enterprise or private edge) may be offered by telcos and others to enterprises but is closely related to private 4G/5G networks and single tenant propositions which are out of scope of this report. STL has written about this in reports such as Private networks: Lessons so far and what next and Combining private 5G and edge computing: The revenue opportunity.

The network edge affords a wide range of choices to deliver edge services from within the network. Network edge also includes neutral host providers that offer facilities for multiple infrastructure providers, which support enterprise applications, as well as radio access networks. These may be offered by traditional telcos, tower infrastructure providers and others.

The regional edge sits outside telco networks at internet exchanges, carrier exchanges, interconnect points, co-location, and data centre facilities. Multiple parties can deploy infrastructure at such locations which are designed as neutral, well-connected locations for third party equipment.  For some use cases, these locations are considered as ‘close enough’ or ‘near enough’ edge sites.

Edge computing drivers and benefits vary depending on the use case

While low latency is often cited as the justification for moving application workloads from the cloud to the edge, there are other drivers such as reduced data transit, data sovereignty and improving redundancy. These factors may be just as relevant as low latency, or more so, depending on the specific use case.

Edge computing benefits

Migrating workloads from end-devices to the edge can also bring benefits such as reduced power consumption, allowing smaller form factors at lower costs, and enabling experiences that are simply not possible on existing devices due to heavy computational requirements. Processing in the cloud may have been previously dismissed due to its limitations or constraints. One consumer example would be Instagram or Snapchat real-time video filters with heavy machine learning processing requirements. The processing for these may move to the edge to improve and standardise performance across devices, by not relying on the end-device’s processing power. Partners

However, the public cloud is well established and here to stay, so it is prudent to view the edge as complementary to and an extension of the public cloud, offering characteristics which may be important for specific components of certain use cases.

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
    • Most telcos do not yet see demand for a fully distributed edge
    • The platform is an important piece of the edge, but the verdict is still out on which approach to take
    • Telcos need to guarantee multi-cloud and multi-edge orchestration for their customers
    • Next steps
  • Introduction
    • Defining the edge
    • The state of the edge
  • Cloud vs edge
    • Contrasting public cloud and public edge
    • Latency in fixed vs mobile networks
    • The rationale for telco edge
  • Telco edge propositions and use cases
    • Internal applications for telcos
    • External applications for telcos
    • Telco edge propositions based on telco’s capabilities
    • Potential use case opportunities for telco edge
  • Where is the telco edge?
    • Edge really means core for now
    • Challengers to the telco edge
  • Building the telco edge platform
    • Edge developers want a consistent and seamless experience
    • The potential providers of network edge platforms
    • Cloud-centric capabilities and business models are key the success of telco edge platforms
  • Overcoming challenges
    • Telco industry challenges
    • External challenges
  • Conclusion: What should telcos do?

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Forecasting capacity of network edge computing

Telco edge build has been slower than expected

Telecoms operators have been planning the deployment of edge computing sites for at least the last three years.

Initially, the premise of (mobile) edge computing was to take advantage of the prime real estate telecoms operators had. Mobile operators, in particular, had undergone a process of evolving their network facilities from sites which housed purpose-built networking equipment to data centres as they adopted virtualisation. The consolidation of networking equipment meant there would be spare capacity in these data centres that could easily host applications for enterprises and developers.

That evolution has now been accelerated by the advent of 5G, a mobile generation built on a software-based architecture and IT principles. The result will be a proliferation of edge data centres that will be used for radio access network and core network hardware and software.

However, the reality is that it has taken time for telcos to deploy these sites. There are multiple reasons for this:

  1. Cost: There is a cost to renovate an existing telco site and ensure it meets requirements common for world-class data centres.
  2. Demand: Telcos are hesitant to take on the risk of building out the infrastructure until they are certain of the demand for these data centres.
  3. 5G roll-out: Mobile operators have been prioritising their 5G RAN roll-out in the last two years, over the investment in edge data centres.
  4. Partnership decisions: The discussion around who to partner with to build the edge data centres has become more complicated, because of the number of partners vying for the role and the entrance of new partners (e.g. hyperscalers) which has slowed down decision-making

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Early adopters have taken significant strides in their edge strategy in 2021

2020 and 2021 have been seen as inflection points as a number of leading telecoms operators have launched edge sites: e.g. AT&T, Verizon, Cox Communications, SK Telecom and Vodafone. Arguably, this was triggered by AWS announcing partnerships on AWS Wavelength with four telecoms operators in November 2019, with more recently announced (e.g. Telstra in 2021).

Going forward, key questions remain on the trajectory of telco edge build:

  • How many edge data centres will telcos build and make available for consumer/enterprise applications?
  • How much capacity of telco edge computing will there be globally?
  • How much of telco edge computing will be used for distributed core network functions vs. consumer/enterprise applications?
  • What proportion of telco edge data centre capacity will be taken up by hyperscalers’ platforms?

This report seeks to forecast the capacity at telecoms operators’ edge data centres until 2025 and provide clarity on the nature and location of these sites. In other words, how many sites and servers will be available for running applications and where will these sites be located, both physically and logically in the telecoms operators’ networks.

Before reading this report, we would recommend reading STL Partners’ previous publications on telco edge computing to provide context for some of the key themes addressed, for example:

The report focuses on network edge computing sites

Edge computing comprises of a spectrum of potential location and technologies designed to bring processing power closer to the end-device and source of data, outside of a central data centre or cloud. This report focuses on forecasting capacity at the network edge – i.e. edge computing at edge data centres owned (and usually operated) by telecoms operators.

The initial version of the forecast models capacity at these sites for non-RAN workloads. In other words, processing for enterprise or consumer applications and the distributed core network functions required to support them. Future versions of the forecast will expand to RAN.

Forecast scope in terms of edge locations and workload types

The report covers two out of three scenarios for building the network edge

Table of content

  • Executive summary
  • Introduction
  • There are 3 key factors determining telco edge data centre build out
  • Logically, most network edge will be in the transport aggregation layer
  • Geographically, we will see a shift in the concentration of network edge data centres
  • The limited capacity at network edge DCs will largely be used for edge applications
  • Most telecoms operators are taking a hybrid approach to building their edge
  • Conclusions and next steps
  • Appendix: Methodology

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Edge computing market sizing forecast

Introducing STL Partners’ edge computing market sizing forecast

This report presents the key findings of STL Partners’ new demand forecast model for edge computing services. Its purpose is to:

  • Assess the demand from 20 use cases which currently rely on edge or will require edge to fully develop;
  • Identify the total revenue across the value chain: hardware, connectivity, application, edge infrastructure (network and on-premise), and integration and support;
  • Output a full set of results for over 180 countries over the 2020–2030 period per use case and per vertical.

This report is accompanied by a dashboard which presents a summary of our model output and the associated graphics for the world’s regions and for 20 major markets. The dashboard also presents the full revenue output for the 180+ countries.

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Edge computing addressable revenue will reach US$543 billion by 2030

High-level findings from the model indicate that:

  • The growth in the number of connected devices, as well as the need for higher levels of automation, operational efficiency and cost reduction, will drive the adoption of edge computing across many use cases and verticals over the next 10 years. This will result in increased spend across the value chain.
  • The total edge computing addressable market will grow from US$10 billion in 2020 to US$543 billion in 2030 at a CAGR of 49% over the 10-year period.
  • The total value chain breaks into five main components which are hardware, connectivity, application, integration & support, in addition to the edge infrastructure which includes both on-prem edge and network edge.

Total edge computing addressable revenue

Edge computing

Source: STL Partners

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Methodology
  • Revenue by value chain component
  • Revenue by use case
  • Revenue by vertical
  • Revenue by region
  • Appendix

For more information on STL Partners’ edge-related services, please go to our Edge Insights Service page.

The new forecast is intended to complement:

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Growing B2B revenues from edge: Five new telco services

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Edge computing has sparked significant interest from telcos

Edge computing brings cloud capabilities such as data processing and storage closer to the end user, device, or the source of data. There are two main opportunity areas for telcos in edge computing. Firstly, telcos have an opportunity to provide edge computing via edge data centres at sites on the telecoms network – network edge, sometimes referred to as multi-access edge computing. Secondly, telcos can offer edge-enabled services through compute platforms at the customer premises – on-premise edge.

Although there is an opportunity for telcos to offer new services and an enhanced customer experience to their consumer customer base, much of the edge computing opportunity for telcos is in the B2B segment. We have covered the general strategy operators are taking for edge computing in our previous report Telco edge computing: What’s the operator strategy? and through insights on our Edge Hub. Within enterprise, edge offers a chance for operators to move beyond offering connectivity services and extend into the platform and application space.

However, the market is still young; enterprises are still at an early stage of understanding the potential benefits of edge computing. There is limited availability of network edges; telcos are still deploying sites and few have begun to offer mechanisms to access the edge compute infrastructure within them. As a result, developers are only just starting to build applications to leverage this new infrastructure.

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Telcos are still grappling with defining the opportunity. Since adoption is so nascent, many feel that they are not able to prove the commercial case to unlock significant investment. Some operators are pushing ahead by building out edge infrastructure, securing partnerships and launching edge computing services. Nonetheless, even these operators are keeping an open mind to edge and waiting to see what unfolds as the market matures. What is clear is that, with the hyperscalers and others moving into the edge, telcos are increasingly keen to capitalise on the edge opportunity and solidify their position in the market before it’s too late.The sweet spot opportunity for edge is highly dependent on telcos’ starting points: some have existing capabilities within B2B networking and cloud, partnerships, and strong customer relationships. But for other telcos, the B2B business is at a very early stage. Meanwhile, edge infrastructure build differs across telcos, with some choosing to partner with hyperscalers to create the hardware and software stack within edge data centres while others are opting to build their own stack.

It is therefore critical for telcos to:

  1. Assess whether they can leverage existing B2Bservices, customers and partners versus where they need to invest to fill the gaps
  2. Understand which factors may affect how successful they are in offering new edgeservices
  3. Prioritise which servicesthey could offer to B2B customers

In this report, we focus on answering the following questions:

Which B2B services can edge computing add value to? And how ready are telcos to take new edge services to market?

In order to better understand how operators are thinking about edge services and what they are looking to offer today, we interviewed eight technology and strategy leaders working in operators primarily across Europe.

To ensure an open and candid dialogue, we have anonymised their contributions. We would like to take the opportunity to thank those who participated in this research. A summary of the interviewee profiles is provided in the Appendix.

Telcos’ B2B businesses today

As consumer revenues come under increasing pressure, operators are looking to their B2B businesses to provide a new source of revenue growth. The maturity of their B2B businesses today varies from those who have a limited offering focussed primarily on phones, SIMs and basic connectivity (particularly mobile-only telcos, e.g. Three UK), to those who are providing full vertical applications or taking on the role of systems integrator (often incumbents or telcos with fixed networks, e.g. DTAG, Vodafone). Many telcos are looking for opportunities to take on more of the latter role, by expanding their B2B offerings and increasing their foothold in the value chain e.g. by offering managed services. Particularly with the arrival of 5G, they see greater potential to grow revenues through B2B services compared with B2C.

Maturity levels of telcos’ B2B business

Table of content

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Strategic principles for B2B telco edge
    • Telcos’ B2B businesses today
    • Three telco strategies for B2B edge
    • On-premise edge and network edge are separate opportunities
    • Telcos are open to partnering with the hyperscalers for edge
  • Five types of B2B edge services
    • Edge-to-cloud networking
    • Private edge infrastructure
    • Network edge platforms
    • Multi-edge and cloud orchestration
    • Vertical solutions
  • Evaluating the opportunity: How should telcos prioritise?
    • It’s not just about technology
    • However, significant value creation does not come easy
    • Telcos should consider new business models to ensure success
  • Next steps for telcos in building B2B edge services
    • Prioritise services to monetise edge
    • Evaluate the role of partners
    • Work closely with customers given that edge is still nascent
  • Appendix
    • Interviewee overview
  • Index

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Building telco edge infrastructure: MEC, Private LTE and VRAN

Reality check: edge computing is not yet mature, and much is still to be decided

Edge computing is still a maturing domain. STL Partners has written extensively on the topic of edge computing over the last 4 years. Within that timeframe, we have seen significant change in terminology, attitudes and approaches from telecoms and adjacent industries to the topic area.  Plans for building telco edge infrastructure have also evolved.

Within the past twelve months, we’ve seen high profile partnerships between hyperscale cloud providers (Amazon Web Services, Microsoft and Google) and telecoms operators that are likely to catalyse the industry and accelerate route to market. We’ve also seen early movers within the industry (such as SK Telecom) developing MEC platforms to enable access to their edge infrastructure.

In the course of this report, we will highlight which domains will drive early adoption for edge, and the potential roll out we could see over the next 5 years if operators move to capitalise on the opportunity. However, to start, it is important to evaluate the situation today.

Commercial deployments of edge computing are rare, and most operators are still in the exploration phase. For many, they have not and will not commit to the roll out of edge infrastructure until they have seen evidence from early movers that it is a genuine opportunity for the industry. For even more, the idea of additional capex investment on edge infrastructure, on top of their 5G rollout plans, is a difficult commitment to make.

Where is “the edge”?

There is no one clear definition of edge computing. Depending on the world you are coming from (Telco? Application developer? Data centre operator? Cloud provider? etc.), you are likely to define it differently. In practice, we know that even within these organisations there are differences between technical and commercial teams around the concept and terminology used to describe “the edge”.

For the purposes on this paper, we will be discussing edge computing primarily from the perspective of a telecoms operator. As such, we’ll be focusing on edge infrastructure that will be rolled out within their network infrastructure or that they will play a role in connecting. This may equate to adding additional servers into an existing technical space (such as a Central Office), or it may mean investing in new microdata centres. The servers may be bought, installed and managed by the telco themselves, or this could be done by a third party, but in all cases the real estate (e.g. the physical location as well as power and cooling) is owned either by the telecoms operator, or by the enterprise who is buying an edge-enabled solution.

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Operators have choice and a range of options for where and how they might develop edge computing sites. The graphic below starts to map some of the potential physical locations for an edge site. In this report, STL Partners forecasts edge infrastructure deployments between 2020 and 2024, by type of operator, use-case domains, edge locations and type of computing.

There is a spectrum of edge infrastructure in which telcos may invest

mapping edge infrastructure investmentSource: STL Partners

This paper primarily draws on discussions with operators and others within the edge ecosystem conducted between February and March 2020. We interviewed a range of operators, and a range of job roles within them, to gain a snapshot of the existing attitudes and ambitions within the industry to shape our understanding of how telcos are likely to build out edge infrastructure.

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Preface
  • Reality check: edge computing is not yet mature, and much is still to be decided
    • Reality #1: Organisationally, operators are still divided
    • Reality #2: The edge ecosystem is evolving fast
    • Reality #3: Operators are trying to predict, respond to and figure out what the “new normal” will be post COVID-19
  • Edge computing: key terms and definitions
    • Where is “the edge”?
    • What applications & use cases will run at edge sites?
    • What is inside a telco edge site?
  • How edge will play out: 5-year evolution
    • Modelling exercise: converting hype into numbers
    • Our findings: edge deployments won’t be very “edgy” in 2024
    • Short-term adoption of vRAN is the driving factor
    • New revenues from MEC remain a longer-term opportunity
    • Short-term adoption is focused on efficient operations, but revenue opportunity has not been dismissed
  • Addressing the edge opportunity: operators can be more than infrastructure providers
  • Conclusions: practical recommendations for operators

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