Europe's Big Telcos Are Getting Edgy About 5G

Virtual dodgeball will not happen unless operators cut mobile latency, but that could require an unprecedented overhaul of the entire network. Does it make sense?

Iain Morris, International Editor

March 13, 2019

14 Min Read
Europe's Big Telcos Are Getting Edgy About 5G

A scruffy-haired teen darts from behind a parked car on Berlin's Potsdamer Platz, points his Samsung smartphone like a war photographer in the thick of combat and begins tapping the screen manically. His target is another German youth adopting the same posture. Dozens are mimicking their behavior.

They are playing a new augmented reality game of virtual dodgeball that is like Pokémon Go on steroids. And just as Pokémon Go went viral in 2016, this high-octane successor, also developed by Californian games company Niantic, has all the potential to be a global hit -- and a nuisance for any pedestrians near enthusiastic gamers.

But it is still just a concept. While Pokémon Go could work effectively on most of today's high-speed mobile data networks, Niantic's latest innovation needs far more advanced technology. The main challenge is "latency" -- the time in milliseconds it takes a network signal to travel from one point to another. If that is too high, virtual dodgeball and other "low latency" applications will stumble. Customers might, too: In the case of virtual reality, a signaling delay that is even slightly too long can make the user feel nauseous, say experts.

Figure 1: Less Painful Than the Real Thing? Codenamed Neon, Niantic's virtual dodgeball game has been given a thorough workout in test conditions. Codenamed Neon, Niantic's virtual dodgeball game has been given a thorough workout in test conditions.

Until now, the companies that build and operate mobile networks have focused mainly on "bandwidth," the amount of data that can be sent over a connection. Thanks to investment in much higher-speed 4G networks, smartphone customers today can videoconference friends or watch a 4K movie on a bus trip. But reducing latency is much tougher. The cut needed for some applications could mean redesigning networks at major expense. And operators still have little sense of the consumer and business appetite for these applications.

The next-generation 5G standard has been a catalyst for recent thinking about low latency services. Now locked down, a new "air interface" that provides connectivity between devices and mobile sites should make a big difference in that area of the network, according to Scott Petty, the chief technology officer of Vodafone UK. "It will go from 25 milliseconds to eight milliseconds," he says. That partly explains the excitement that surrounds 5G.

An improved air interface will only do so much, though. The more troublesome bit of the network journey lies between the basestations and the data center where the application is hosted. Without any big changes here, Petty thinks Vodafone could reduce latency on its mobile data networks from about 50-60 milliseconds to roughly 30 -- enough to handle some online gaming and similar applications. But to do vehicle-to-vehicle communications, it would have to get below 15 milliseconds, while virtual reality could demand less than ten. If Vodafone wants to support these services, it will have to look past the radio.

Figure 2: Taking It to the Edge Scott Petty, Vodafone UK's chief technology officer, shown presenting at an Informa 5G event in London last year. Scott Petty, Vodafone UK's chief technology officer, shown presenting at an Informa 5G event in London last year.

The answer is an overhaul of network architecture that goes by various names: edge computing; edge networking; the distributed cloud; even (to some) fog computing. Yet whatever the nomenclature, the goal is to host the application and other computing resources much closer to the basestations, reducing the distance a signal must travel and cutting latency along with it.

Once again, 5G could make the key difference. While the new air interface forms part of the "Release 15" specifications update, Release 16, due to be finalized early next year, promises new "core network" features to support edge computing. It will do that by taking advantage of a technique called "virtualization" and improving on what has been available until now.

In old-fashioned networks, hardware and software are as inextricably entwined as in Apple's iPhones. Virtualization is the tool that has allowed Vodafone and others to start wrenching them apart. The objective is to turn network functions into software programs compatible with any standard server. That should allow operators to move computing power around the network, with edge services in mind.

Unfortunately, virtualization has so far left many operators feeling disappointed. Vendors have simply rehashed existing network functions, say critics, rather than breaking them up into smaller, reusable components that can be more easily deployed. But there is some optimism that such "cloud-native" technology is finally taking shape as Release 16 comes into view. By separating processing and storage capabilities, this could make applications properly "stateless," so they can be deployed at various points in the network. Those include the edge data centers needed to cut latency.

Next page: Tiptoeing toward the edge

Tiptoeing toward the edge
Investment in new edge facilities has now started. In fact, Berliners stand every chance of being among the first virtual dodgeball gamers purely because Niantic's service was developed in partnership with German telecom incumbent Deutsche Telekom, which has already opened four edge data centers in the cities of Berlin, Frankfurt, Hamburg and Munich. "It is very likely that people come together to play in city centers or around stadiums," said Claudia Nemat, Deutsche Telekom's board member for technology, during last month's Mobile World Congress tradeshow in Barcelona, where the Niantic game was demonstrated.

But there is little consensus between operators on how many of these edge facilities they will need. And, whether for technical or business reasons, most have yet to form a clear idea about their future edge presence.

Figure 3: Latency Demand Claudia Nemat, Deutsche Telekom's board member for technology, reckons city-center gaming could be the next big thing. Claudia Nemat, Deutsche Telekom's board member for technology, reckons city-center gaming could be the next big thing.

Deutsche Telekom is one that still appears undecided. "It is all about the business model," says Alex Choi, the operator's senior vice president of technology. "There are questions around that. Some people are positive and some are skeptical." Despite making investments in four new edge data centers, and teaming up with Niantic and smartphone maker Samsung on the virtual dodgeball game, Deutsche Telekom admits that commercial arrangements between the different companies are still "up in the air."

What's clear is that edge computing will not succeed unless the applications exist that require it, and here the German telco is doing its best to stimulate development. MobiledgeX, a Californian start-up backed by the giant German telco, is building the "middleware" for third-party applications to run on an operator's edge computing assets. "The idea is just to expose the edge cloud to developer communities in the form of APIs [application programming interfaces]," says Choi.

MobiledgeX is off to a good start within Deutsche Telekom. A first development kit has attracted interest from various companies that work with the German operator at its "hubraum" incubation facility in Berlin. But if MobiledgeX is really to make a difference, and convince device makers apart from Samsung to get involved, it will need to be more than just a Deutsche Telekom vehicle. Choi's ultimate ambition is to make it the global standard for middleware in edge computing.

Progress in this area has been halting. South Korea's SK Telecom remains the only other telco to have confirmed an investment in MobiledgeX, and it may have been the easiest peer to bring on board as Choi's former employer (he quit his job as SKT's chief technology officer to join Deutsche Telekom in 2017). Vodafone is assessing it alongside other middleware platforms, says Petty. "It is early days and we are doing trials in different markets with different technology sets."

Although it has recently been linked to the platform, Spain's Telefónica is also still weighing its options. "There is also Ericsson Edge Gravity or maybe an agreement with Google or Amazon," says Juan Carlos Garcia, Telefónica's director of technology and architecture. "How operators will monetize and build the platform is a big question." Operators hold attractions for Amazon, he says, because their aggregation nodes could be a more "efficient" place for edge networking than the customer premises, where the US technology giant has already deployed some services under its Greengrass brand.

The extent to which these middleware deals spur interest in edge applications will partly determine operators' rollout strategies. One possibility is the use of MobiledgeX or another middleware platform in telco central offices that have been given an edge overhaul. Deutsche Telekom has about 900 main central offices throughout Germany, plus smaller facilities, says Choi, while Telefónica boasts as many as 7,000 facilities in Spain, according to Garcia. Both operators are exploring ways to rearchitect some of these facilities as mini data centers.

Figure 4: Weighing the Edge Options (Source: Telefonica) (Source: Telefónica)

How many depends on how the market develops, says Choi. But Garcia thinks no more than a few hundred would ever need to figure in Telefónica's edge plans in Spain. "Your latency requirements may not require you to have a presence in every single local central office," he says. "You don't need to be a few kilometers from the customer for many applications." The transition from copper to fiber in the fixed-line network is also helping to reduce latency despite the dismantling of some central offices. "By 2020 we'll have dismantled 1,000, because with fiber we don't need so many," says Garcia.

Telefónica can also benefit from the experience it has gained on Unica, its project to virtualize central data facilities and core network functions. It even calls the later initiative "Unica at the central office." That does not make it a straightforward case of replicating what has already been done in the data center, though. "There are different form factors and configuration, processor distribution, input and output capability," says Garcia. "When you move to the central office, you move from talking about tens of data centers to hundreds or thousands." This year, his goal is to complete the design phase and issue a request for proposal. The rollout of the first Unica-based central offices should start in 2020.

Next page: Chicken and egg

Chicken and egg
But Vodafone's Petty balks at the suggestion he may need several hundred edge data centers in the UK. "I think that is vendor wishful thinking," he says. "The use cases don't exist for why we would want to do that."

In the near future, he reckons, eight data centers would be enough for latency of between 15 and 20 milliseconds. The number is unlikely to go above 64 even with the emergence of new services. "The power consumption, security concerns and energy costs would outweigh the economic benefits," he says. It is hardly surprising if the makers of x86 servers think otherwise, he smiles.

Petty also doubts commercial edge applications will arrive before 2023, citing technical and not business case challenges. Today, Vodafone's core network systems are provided mainly by Cisco and spread across four UK sites. Using a VMware platform, it has already virtualized most network nodes and is now working on the development of a next-generation core so that it can push functions to the edge. But this will bring operational complexity. "You can't just call one vendor when things start to go wrong," says Petty. "It could be software, it could be VMware. It takes a long time to figure out how to put in the right telemetry tools and operational capabilities."

It also means working with new players. Like Telefónica's Garcia, Petty is looking at a much closer partnership with Amazon as he plans the future edge network. "Amazon is building a technology called Outpost which lets you take an AWS [Amazon Web Services] load and, without modifying the code, distribute it into our network," he says. "Interoperability with them is critically important."

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UK rival BT faces a similar overhaul. Like Deutsche Telekom in Germany and Telefónica in Spain, the UK's national incumbent has a big footprint of central offices and other facilities it could use to support future edge services. Tom Bennett, the director of network products and services for BT's EE mobile subsidiary, says the "opportunity" equals about 1,000 edge data centers across the entire country. But BT is not about to commit to any rollout approaching that scale without a better sense of the demand for edge applications. "Who will pay for premium services?" says Dave Salam, EE's director of mobility and analytics.

With the introduction of 5G, BT's first priority is to reduce latency from an average of about 30 milliseconds today to around 20. In the longer term, this should fall to around 10, says an EE spokesperson. Rather like Vodafone, BT is currently at work on the development of a next-generation core that will take full advantage of the latest cloud-native technologies. In contrast to Vodafone, however, EE's longtime provider of core network systems is not in the frame for this business. BT is stripping China's Huawei out of its mobile core because of security concerns, and will not be using it for mobile edge computing. Trials have taken place with the likes of Nokia and Mavenir, a smaller but growing software developer, while BT has yet to announce any decision.

Figure 5: 5G Demo Orange's Arnaud Vamparys (at right of picture) talks to Light Reading at the French operator's MWC stand. Orange's Arnaud Vamparys (at right of picture) talks to Light Reading at the French operator's MWC stand.

The excitement and wariness about the edge are not surprising. Arnaud Vamparys, the senior vice president of radio networks for France's Orange, enthuses over the prospect of a sophisticated translation service, based on artificial intelligence, that would interpet conversations in real time. With latency of between 30 and 40 milliseconds, Orange's current mobile data networks could not deliver a satisfactory experience. But will monoglots, homework-shy language learners and other users pay for the edge network to host that application?

Bengt Nordström, the CEO of Swedish consulting firm Northstream, is skeptical, pointing out that latency improvements in the last decade have not lifted telco revenues. "I can play quite advanced games with my smartphone where I depend on decent latency, but I am not paying for it," he says. "When I buy a data package from an operator I get throughput, volume, simplicity and latency benefits, but latency is not a separate line item for charging."

Figuring out that part of the edge equation will be the hardest task of all. Until then, the pedestrians on Potsdamer Platz may be able to rest easy.

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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading

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About the Author(s)

Iain Morris

International Editor, Light Reading

Iain Morris joined Light Reading as News Editor at the start of 2015 -- and we mean, right at the start. His friends and family were still singing Auld Lang Syne as Iain started sourcing New Year's Eve UK mobile network congestion statistics. Prior to boosting Light Reading's UK-based editorial team numbers (he is based in London, south of the river), Iain was a successful freelance writer and editor who had been covering the telecoms sector for the past 15 years. His work has appeared in publications including The Economist (classy!) and The Observer, besides a variety of trade and business journals. He was previously the lead telecoms analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, and before that worked as a features editor at Telecommunications magazine. Iain started out in telecoms as an editor at consulting and market-research company Analysys (now Analysys Mason).

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