It isn't as if cell tower companies have been sitting idly by on the sidelines of telecom before now. But with the arrival of the edge computing investment wave, IoT applications and 5G services, they have new reason to be optimistic about their role in network development. As the old real estate adage goes, the key to success is location, location, location.
And tower companies have that advantage in spades.
Crown Castle International Corp. (NYSE: CCI) is the largest tower operator -- beating out American Tower by a smidge, according to Wireless Estimator -- and the company is hungry to leverage its well-distributed network assets across the US. These include not only 40,000+ towers, but also 60,000 miles of fiber and a growing small cell footprint that extends to tens of thousands of nodes today. VP of Corporate Development and Strategy Alan Bock says that four to five years ago, the company started looking at how to combine its assets and still leverage the real estate investment trust (REIT) business model that Crown Castle knows so well.
"Data centers were of interest to us," notes Bock, "but we were trying to figure out, what could Crown add to the mix? How could we add value to that and not just do what cable and others are doing in terms of centralized data centers?"
Bock's team wanted to know if there was a niche that Crown could fill, and if so, what that niche was.
"We started looking at the possibility of combining our distributed real estate assets along with our fiber to provide for edge data centers, and as we've kind of gone along in the last five years, we've seen the rise, or I should say, the imminent rise of applications that can utilize the advantages that edge computing can bring."
Those advantages include the ability to handle local content ingest, enable communication among devices locally and manage certain computations without requiring data to be transmitted back to a centralized hub.
After all, as Bock puts it, "you can't fight physics." So the alternative is to decrease the distance that information has to travel.
For now, Crown Castle is merely evaluating its options in the edge data center business, a process it started with an investment in data center company Vapor IO in June. However, the evaluation process is likely to accelerate in the coming year.
"I think you'll probably see a few deployments in 2018," says Bock, "a few commercial deployments in 2018. That's what I'm hoping for."
Vapor IO offers a 9x9 foot enclosure that supports up to 150 kilowatts of server equipment. By deploying these Vapor Chambers at the base of its towers, and feeding them with its own fiber, Crown Castle could sell new services to customers with strict latency requirements. Bock believes that content delivery network (CDN) providers will be early adherents to this new edge networking model, followed by cloud providers looking to support edge-specific applications. (See Qwilt Starts Caching on Verizon Edge.)
"From the carriers' perspective, a lot of them are moving toward C-RAN (cloud radio access network) configurations and I think these make very attractive locations for that as well," says Bock.
And then there are low-power IoT network providers and the growing demand for smart city solutions.
Bock says he's excited by the idea of using Crown Castle real estate to tie together radios and sensors that support IoT applications. This might include hosting LoRa gateways and other cellular-based IoT equipment. Between the company's metro fiber, existing small cell program and the land at the base of its towers, Crown Castle has a lot to offer. (Related, see Senet Virtualizes Worldwide IoT Network.)
"We thought through this and that's why we've assembled this pretty unique asset mix between the real estate, the fiber and so forth," explains Bock. "So I believe we're ultimately going to move toward solutions, where if you talk about smart cities, smart cities are going to need the attachments for the sensors and for the radios. They're going to need the fiber to connect all those things. And you're going to need the edge data centers to process a lot of that information. And so we think we come in and we can solve for a lot of the infrastructure that needs to be put in place for smart city solutions."
That would certainly be a change for a traditional cellular tower company, but then again, the rules of telecom are changing everywhere.
— Mari Silbey, Senior Editor, Cable/Video, Light Reading