Europe's Big Telcos Are Getting Edgy About 5G

Iain Morris

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.

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.

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

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