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The Edge

AT&T's CTO floats post-pandemic use case for 5G, edge computing

AT&T and a number of other leading wireless network operators are easing into the edge computing sector with the hope the space will eventually deliver significant returns. And as part of their efforts, they're working to scare up interest among potential customers with the promise of newer, faster and better services.

Andre Fuetsch, AT&T's chief technology officer for network services, offered an update today on how the technology might be applied in a post-COVID-19 world.

"One of the use cases we're working on is looking at how to use computer vision technology to help the retail space adapt to this new norm of social distancing," Fuetsch said Thursday at the Wells Fargo 5G Forum. "How do you run a retail store and have your employees and customers comply with social distancing guidelines?"

Fuetsch explained that computer vision technology can determine whether employees are wiping down counters in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. He said it can also check whether shoppers are maintaining social distancing. And he said such technology can do so consistently across hundreds of thousands of locations.

However, for such a service to be economical and immediate, 5G and edge computing would be required. "For it to be responsive and fast, you really need to look at edge-type technologies to be able to do that," Fuetsch explained.

Specifically, he said edge computing servers could run computer vision services in geographic locations close enough to retail outlets to offer low-latency connections but centralized in a way that would avoid the need to install expensive servers in each retail location. 5G networks will be able to support thousands or millions of IoT connections, such as cameras, a feat that is beyond the capabilities of Wi-Fi or 4G, he said.

"I think you're going to see a whole new wave of applications," Fuetsch predicted while also pointing to other edge computing and 5G applications such as autonomous automobiles or connected coffee cups that could track consumption or caloric intake. However, those kinds of use cases have been widely discussed inside the wireless industry prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

AT&T has already made some initial forays into edge computing. For example, last year it touted tests with Israeli startup Vorpal and technology giant Microsoft for drone tracking near airports.

But AT&T isn't alone in testing out the parameters of 5G and edge computing. Verizon, for example, has been discussing how edge computing and 5G might be used by companies such as Walmart and Corning.

Moreover, operators like AT&T and Verizon are among a wide range of players in the burgeoning edge computing sector. Other companies investing into edge computing range from cloud computing giants like Amazon and Google to startups like Vapor IO and EdgeMicro.

Edge computing proponents argue the technology could dramatically change the way the Internet works by spreading computing functions away from a handful of giant data centers to thousands or millions of smaller edge sites. However, the size of the opportunity remains contingent on proponents finding enough paying customers to make the buildout of such infrastructure worthwhile.

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

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