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Mobile Edge Computing: Building a Bridge to 5G

John Reister
10/27/2016
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App makers and content providers aren't waiting for the magical low-latency paradise of 5G to push the limits of what's possible on mobile networks. Consumers are not waiting for more network capabilities to consume new apps and functionality. In fact, these demands will continue to outpace the steps operators are making towards next-generation networks.

We've seen firsthand the power of "come from out of nowhere" apps like Pokémon Go to quickly capture consumer hearts -- the fastest mobile game ever to get to 500 million downloads! -- and destroy data plans. During a time when everyone was still debating whether virtual reality would find an audience, the market took a giant leap on the back of this breakout, global, augmented-reality hit. Wireless networks supporting this sudden surge in outdoor mobile gaming were able to keep up with the unexpected load of new sessions -- this time. (See Pokémon Go Is Just the Beginning: Wait Until VR's on 5G!)

Mobile games typically have regular and unpredictable updates, with new features coming out all the time. Speaking at the TechCrunch Disrupt event last month, John Hanke, CEO of Pokémon Go creator Niantic, said near-term updates will improve social aspects of the game and mature its technology.

We'll have to wait and see what the long-term plan is, but fans are vocal about wanting more. In an August 2016 Vasona Networks Inc. survey of more than 500 Pokémon Go players in the US, the majority of respondents said they want more augmented reality experiences. Nearly one quarter said that playing outside was the most exciting part. About two thirds say they play at least a few times per week, and 69% already plan to play future versions of the game.

On top of the smartphone demand, gamers will also be able to play current and future versions on their new Apple watches, prompting even more use. Then, of course, it’s only a matter of time before the copycats come and try to one-up Niantic at its own game.

While Pokémon Go has a low data draw today, one concerning aspect is that it produces nearly continuous app session traffic. Consider what features survey respondents said they wanted to see in future versions, and it becomes immediately evident why this network behavior should be setting off alarm bells for operators. When asked what future functionality players were most eager to see:

  • 39% want map overlays
  • 26% want real-time syncing to see location and progress of friends
  • 21% want characters that can react to player actions
  • 9% want in-game video chat
  • 6% want to be able to live stream game commentary

If consumers get even part of what they want, that could spell trouble for already burdened mobile networks.

Each of these features have "data intensive" written all over them. And if they're running continuously, their threat to other latency-sensitive applications like Voice-over-LTE (VoLTE) or video could be substantial. If the networks that can inherently handle these kinds of demands are at least a couple years away from wide deployment but demanding of attention today, what can operators do?

Build a bridge to 5G
Globally, operators are still investing in 4G coverage and capacity, while at the same time changing how they evaluate network capital decisions. Today, operators want vendors to demonstrate a positive impact on the subscriber experience before they will invest in proposed technology upgrades. With major network architecture upgrades on the horizon, a simple investment band-aid won't be sufficient. Instead, technology investments must be a bridge, creating steps toward the 5G evolution.

Mobile Edge Computing (MEC), soon to be dubbed Multi-Access Edge Computing, is a valuable initiative and at the heart of a viable path forward, easing operators through the transition phase.

For example, throughput guidance is a MEC use case that would position operators to meet both current and future network demands. Networks are monitored at the edge, giving operators the ability to communicate crucial information like cell condition or suggested bit-rate to the content provider. The data being streamed by the content provider can then be adjusted accordingly on the fly to balance best app performance against what a particular cell can deliver in the moment. The ability for this guidance to be updated as app sessions hop from cell to cell gives mobile operators an even greater ability to protect end-user experiences. In our trials with operators, this technique was used to reduce stalls and delays by 20% during peak video viewing hours.

At the MEC Congress event held in Germany last month, five vendors came together on a proof of concept (POC) to demonstrate the ability to support multiple MEC platforms and applications residing on shared and common computing infrastructure. Each provided a unique impact on data traffic, spanning analytics, optimization and network functions.The result is improved subscriber experiences and operator visibility.

When we have put MEC-based traffic management applications in-line for mobile operators, we have reduced 3G and 4G RAN latency for time-sensitive traffic by as much as 35%.

Since the market has seen traffic behavior changing dramatically overnight, we know that getting smarter about what each session demands and whether the network or cell can support these demands at a given moment is a critical first step. Deploying this type of functionality at the edge of the network is an important step toward building the architecture that will eventually be required to support 5G.

5G demands are here today with MEC use cases and benefits are well-aligned with needs. Across consumer and enterprise segments, MEC aims to bring enhanced IoT, location services and augmented reality support. Though they are arriving earlier than the industry may have expected or desired, the building blocks for addressing the challenges posed are being created and standardized now. What’s clear is that as mobile gaming and other app makers continue to push the envelope on features and functionality, they are being driven by what consumers want, not what networks are ready for.

The consumers in the Vasona Nsurvey represented 11% of US adults online. The impact that about 10% of traffic within a cell can have on other sessions in the same cell is substantial. As noted earlier, this is especially true when addressing ever-increasing video quality needs, trying to assure VoLTE traffic and keeping other apps running smoothly. As these time-sensitive traffic types grow, so too do the implications on customer perception of service provider quality.

Starting today to build the infrastructure to support current needs on existing networks ensures that the consumer experience doesn’t suffer during the relatively long (not to mention expensive) journey to 5G. To that end, it's not just a bridge that operators are building. With MEC, they are putting in place a cost-efficient infrastructure that will advance innovation today. By the time 5G networks roll out, entire industries will already have gotten a head start on developing strategies and tech that can take advantage of these networks and maximize their value, making the network stronger.

— John Reister, VP, Marketing & Product Management, Vasona Networks

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