MEC: The Definition Disparity

Edge computing in a mobile environment promises to underpin a variety of new technologies and services. But what exactly does MEC even stand for? It depends on who you ask.

Chris Nicoll, Principal Analyst, Omdia

April 15, 2019

5 Min Read
MEC: The Definition Disparity

Definitions matter in telecom. With the name change from Mobile Edge Computing to Multi-Access Edge Computing, and now perhaps just Edge Computing, with some use cases that do not seem to involve the wide area network or even the access network at all, does anyone really know what MEC is and does it matter?

At its most basic level, mobile edge computing or multi-access edge computing or just edge computing distributes cloud services compute and storage resources throughout the network to reduce delays and latency, distributes services to support new use cases and revenue opportunities and decreases service deployment costs. MEC does this by merging IT, content, connectivity and location to place compute, storage, orchestration and application resources closer to the users.

The problem comes when you look at where the placement happens and for what applications. Is it a function such as autonomous driving or gaming and virtual reality? Do you architect MEC services on the basis of latency bands? Or on the basis of location such as cell site, pre-aggregation, aggregation, regional and central data centers? The upshot is that MEC means many things to different people, companies and organizations.

The clarity challenge
One of the considerable challenges with understanding edge computing is agreeing to a common definition with your suppliers and partners. Nearly every MEC solution definition starts with "And here is what we mean by the edge." Here is a sample of edge compute definitions by different organizations.


Edge Definition (Source: websites or white papers)


Multi-access edge computing offers application developers and content providers cloud-computing capabilities and an IT service environment at the edge of the network. This environment is characterized by ultra-low latency and high bandwidth as well as real-time access to radio network information that can be leveraged by applications.


References the ETSI WP defining MEC.


Edge computing is the practice of processing data near the edge of your network, where the data is being generated, instead of in a centralized data-processing center.


Wikipedia defines edge computing as "pushing the frontier of computing applications, data and services away from centralized nodes to the logical extremes of a network. It enables analytics and data gathering to occur at the source of the data."

The most mature view of edge computing is that it is offering application developers and service providers cloud computing capabilities, as well as an IT service environment at the edge of a network.


We think that you put the compute closer to the eyeballs and devices, and you start to use more specialized (vs. generic) hardware to drive down cost while increasing performance.


By circumventing the need to access the cloud to make decisions, edge computing provides real-time local data analysis to devices, which can include everything from remote mining equipment and autonomous vehicles to digital billboards, wearable health appliances and more.


MEC processes data close to where it is generated and consumed. This enables the network to deliver the ultra-low latency required by business-critical applications and to support interactive user experiences in busy venues. By processing data locally, MEC applications can also significantly reduce data transfer costs.


Edge compute is about providing execution resources with the adequate connectivity at close proximity to the data sources. From a cost perspective centralization is preferred for computing. But from a technical perspective distribution is normally an advantage. The edge is the sweet spot where the two perspectives meet, which means the location of the edge depends on the use case. Even within a single use case, there might be multiple locations for the edge.

These divergent definitions make what edge is as clear as mud. So, the question remains: Where is the edge? For some organizations such as ETSI/3GPP, HPE and OpenStack it is the edge of the network, which could mean the RAN, the CO or even the CMTS. For others edge means the enterprise location providing the lowest latency with the greatest security and enterprise control.

The architecture conundrum
Another aspect blurring a definition of MEC are the competing issues in defining MEC layers and services: location determines latency, but locations are not the same in every network or even within carrier networks. Aggregation site locations in a dense urban area such as London, Hong Kong or New York City can be several hundred meters or yards apart. In suburban areas distances can grow to miles, and in rural areas may not exist at all. This location issue poses a challenge to ubiquitous services, potentially widening the urban/rural digital divide.

The definition of the edge continues to evolve with some early cell-tower MEC proponents, such as VaporIO and EdgeMicro, now suggesting that cell-site aggregation locations provide a more economical and broader service option for edge compute applications compared to putting MEC resources at the cell tower. This strategy has been echoed by several operators, including BT/EE, SKT, Sprint, Telefonica and Verizon.

Whether edge compute is intended to address application service and performance requirements onsite, at the network edge or deeper into the core, where the edge actually resides is less important than what business problems is it solving.

— Chris Nicoll, Principal Analyst, Wireless & Mobile, ACG

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About the Author(s)

Chris Nicoll

Principal Analyst, Omdia

ACG working with mobile, security, IoT and infrastructure vendors and operators on their market and messaging strategy, with a focus on 4G, 5G, IoT and non-cellular wireless technology development and deployment.  Mr. Nicoll's focus for over 35 years has been global, pulling experiences, best practices, trials and tests from around the world to apply to local-market needs. Mr. Nicoll has a technical background designing terrestrial and satellite-based voice and data networks around the globe as well as market positioning and competitive response experience.  He applies his knowledge to messaging and competitive positioning, communications, technology and market strategy via workshops, presentations, white papers and articles across a wide array of topics including Connected Car, 5G, IoT, 4G, Small Cells, Wi-Fi, and Security. Mr. Nicoll has been a part of leading successful teams at Tymnet, Netrix, Current Analysis, Lucent, Alcatel-Lucent, Yankee Group and Analysys Mason. Mr. Nicoll holds a B.S. in Communications from Florida State University.

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