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The Edge

An inside look at Verizon's first 5G MEC customers

Verizon has been touting its ambitious 5G mobile edge computing (MEC) partnership with Amazon Web Services (AWS) since it was first announced at the AWS Re:Invent conference in December.

Verizon is calling its MEC platform the 5G Edge and it is now available in five markets – Washington, D.C.; Boston; Atlanta; New York; and San Francisco. Developers and businesses can deploy their applications and use AWS Wavelength, which is AWS' cloud computing platform that is optimized for the network edge, to embed compute and storage functionality for Verizon's 5G Edge. The companies plan to expand the 5G Edge to ten markets by year-end.

But what exactly is Verizon's 5G Edge? According to Thierry Sender, director of edge computing product strategy and management at Verizon, the 5G Edge means that Verizon and AWS have tightly integrated the network and the compute resources within those markets and can guarantee customers latency of between 25 to 50 milliseconds, thus improving performance. "What we have done, through a lot of software and architecture changes," Sender said, "is to enable a vast amount of compute capabilities."

For example, Sender said that any device with a 5G radio can turn into a real-time gaming device because the latency will be so low. On the industrial side, Sender said that, for example, manufacturing companies can have a real-time artificial intelligence interface that makes their industrial applications act in real-time. "These things were not possible before," he said.

But it's not just software that is doing the work. Sender said that AWS has deployed a data center at each 5G Edge location. "AWS had to restructure their architecture to embed that capability at the edge," he said, adding that both Verizon and AWS had to make changes to their control plane architectures in their networks as well.

If a potential customer wants to make use of Verizon's 5G Edge, that doesn't mean they need to necessarily be located in one of the five cities listed above. Sender said that the "availability zone" for each city is very big. For example, the San Francisco 5G Edge extends into Sacramento, California, and the Boston 5G Edge extends to Providence, Rhode Island. Basically, the 5G Edge includes anywhere that Verizon can still guarantee that low latency delivery of 50 milliseconds or lower. In fact, Sender believes that by year-end, when Verizon is expected to have ten markets covered, the 5G Edge will be close to having nationwide coverage.

Sender said 5G Edge customers and partners have only had access to the 5G Edge for the past month and a half and most are just trialing potential uses for it right now. "We are continuing to build it out," he said, adding that he believes 2021 will be the year that the company starts to see some of these trials and use cases come to life in commercial deployments.

And 5G devices won't be the only ones benefiting from the 5G Edge. Sender said that existing 4G services may also get better.

Disrupting satellite delivery

One Verizon edge partner working on the broadcast market is Zixi, which has a software-defined video platform that delivers broadcast quality video over an IP network.

Eric Bolton, vice president of business development at Zixi, said that his company believes that Verizon's 5G Edge provides all the necessary pieces for content companies to distribute 4K and 8K live streams from locations such as concert halls or stadiums or other venues without requiring the use of a satellite uplink. "I think this could impact how large-scale content is delivered," he said, adding that many of Zixi's media clients are watching this area closely. One client, which Bolton described as a "global broadcaster" but declined to name, is currently testing the delivery of live 4K and 8K broadcast video over Verizon's 5G Edge. That client plans to be in production by year-end.

Zixi, which is based in Waltham, Massachusetts, primarily worked with Verizon's 5G Edge in the Boston area. Bolton said that once Verizon can get its 5G Edge more widely available, it will put a lot of pressure on the existing satellite content delivery model. "We think it will be very disruptive," he said.

And while the low-latency delivery of video is a big draw for the 5G Edge, Bolton said that the other appealing item is the amount of bandwidth that Verizon's 5G millimeter wave (mmWave) network can provide because it means that broadcasters have a very big pipe to use to deliver high-resolution video.

But will this be a cost-effective way to deliver high-resolution video content? Bolton said that he believes that big media companies will be willing to pay to use Verizon's 5G Edge because it offers a way for them to stand apart from the competition. "Broadcasters need to differentiate themselves and delivering live video is a differentiator."

Too early to talk business model

Video isn't the only area of focus for Verizon's 5G Edge. Virtual reality (VR) is also a potential game-changer. Silicon Valley startup YBVR is another Verizon 5G Edge partner. The company has a VR video platform that can stream live 8K ultra-HD video and provide 360-degree and 180-degree camera views to fans at concerts or sporting events.

Sebastian Amengual, CTO and one of the founders of YBVR, said that the company first started working with Verizon and AWS last year because it needed a low latency way to deliver its live VR content. YBVR works with Verizon's 5G Edge in the San Francisco area.

Amengual said that Verizon was very interested in being able to deliver this type of content to people in stadiums as an add-on experience for attendees. "Now we have a solution that can live stream this content in less than second, or about 800 milliseconds," Amengual said, noting that the company wants to get the latency down to half a second.

Latency is critical, particularly if the use case is for people attending a live event where any type of delay would be apparent. Amengual said that by using Verizon's 5G Edge the company can stream its VR content the last mile and have control over the latency and the bandwidth. Plus, with Verizon's mmWave 5G network, Amengual said that there is enough bandwidth to deliver its VR content to thousands of end users. Without the 5G Edge, Amengual said that his company would have no control over the amount of latency or the bandwidth.

Like Zixi, YBVR said that it believes that its clients, which are broadcasters and content owners, will want to offer VR content to their viewers and will pay for this service. The company is currently working with an unnamed, major sports tournament to potentially deliver VR content to its broadcast partners.

When asked if VR content that is streamed through the 5G Edge would be more expensive than content streamed from a central cloud location, Amengual said that his company hasn't yet discussed these business models with Verizon.

Verizon's Sender said that the company sees its 5G Edge as being transformative to many industries, from gaming to content distribution to industrial manufacturing. And while some use cases will result in cost savings for companies, others will allow companies to differentiate or offer better services to customers and therefore charge more. "We are taking the concept of connectivity and the cloud and making it impactful to business operations," he said.

— Sue Marek, special to Light Reading. Follow her @suemarek.

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