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The Edge

5G, edge computing, small cells to get more attention after pandemic

As Americans hunker down to slow the spread of the new coronavirus, some top business executives are arguing the crisis will put even more emphasis on the deployment of networking technologies, including small cells, edge computing and 5G.

"The amount of work that will be done in a remote sense is absolutely going to change, and that is one of the things 5G enables. Because with 5G, some of the biggest uses are going to be in companies," explained outgoing IBM Chairman and CEO Ginni Rometty in comments to CNBC. She said 5G could be used for everything from remote learning to wireless factories. "I think this will accelerate those kinds of applications on the other side [of the crisis], and it will change the way that we're able to do our work."

Citing Rometty's comments, the Wall Street analysts at Wells Fargo speculated that the "urgency" around 5G "snaps back with more breath than it would have ever had even just 1 month ago."

Rometty isn't alone. Longtime networking executive Marc Ganzi agreed that the current COVID-19 pandemic – which is forcing millions of employees to work from home – is helping to shine a light on the value of reliable networks.

He said specifically that edge computing and small cells would play a key role in ensuring videoconferencing, video streaming and other online services perform as needed.

Ganzi's comments are particularly noteworthy considering he's lined up to take the CEO job at Colony Capital in July. The company is a global investment firm with a focus in part on mobile communications, and it manages $36 billion in capital alongside $13 billion of its own investments.

"These networks have to keep going," Ganzi said during a conference with investors organized by Wall Street research firm Wells Fargo. He argued that networks in general aren't designed for the types of real-time networking stresses that the global coronavirus crisis has created.

Ganzi explained that edge computing can help speed up web-based services by moving computing functions physically closer to the customers actually using them. Not surprisingly, Colony counts a 20% interest in DataBank, which operates data centers for edge computing around the country.

As for small cells, Ganzi noted such devices can allow operators to handle additional traffic. He also said they can play into an operator's edge computing strategy since small cell nodes can be centrally controlled in a C-RAN network design – and that the C-RAN hub can be used for edge computing services. A centralized radio access network (C-RAN) design involves routing a handful of antennas into one central location. (Colony also has an investment in small cell company ExteNet Systems.)

IBM's Rometty and Colony's Ganzi aren't alone in speculating on how the current pandemic might affect the telecom industry specifically and the macroeconomic situation in general in the coming months and years.

"We believe the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated society's transition to broadband and digitization by at least a decade, and that this trend will continue to march forward," wrote the Wall Street research analysts at MKM Partners in a note to investors last week.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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