South Korea's SK Telecom is touting a new mobile edge computing platform that, it claims, will reduce latency on mobile networks by up to 60%.
Typically measured in milliseconds, latency is the time taken for a data request to be fulfilled on a packet network. Average latency on today's mobile networks is too high for services that operators want to provide using 5G technology -- including virtual reality, multi-person gaming applications and industrial robotics.
European operators that spoke with Light Reading for an in-depth report on edge computing cite average latency of between 30 and 50 milliseconds over current networks. Cutting that to between 10 and 20 milliseconds would create new service opportunities, according to BT and Vodafone.
Scott Petty, the chief technology officer of Vodafone UK, says the new 5G air interface will reduce latency between mobile sites and customer devices from around 25 milliseconds to eight.
But that would not address the signaling delay caused by the distance between basestations and the centralized data centers that host computing resources.
That is where SK Telecom (SKT) claims to have made improvements by using what it calls "small-scale data centers" installed at basestation and service router locations -- the part of the network commonly referred to as the "edge" -- that are closer to end users than traditional data center facilities.
The move confirms SKT's commitment to being one of the first major telcos to power up edge computing assets and attempt to develop new services and revenues using those assets.
To further those ambitions, the South Korean operator has thrown its weight behind Californian edge startup MobiledgeX. Backed financially by SKT as well as Germany's Deutsche Telekom, it is developing the "middleware" platform that manages edge computing assets and enables third-party applications to use and run on those assets.
Alex Choi, the senior vice president of technology for Deutsche Telekom, wants MobiledgeX to become the industry standard in this area and is encouraging other service providers to invest in the company.
But MobiledgeX faces competition from other middleware players, including equipment vendors like Ericsson and web giants such as Amazon and Google, according to Juan Carlos Garcia, the director of technology and architecture for Spain's Telefónica.
At the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Deutsche Telekom showed how MobiledgeX's technology might be used in a commercial setting with a demonstration of a virtual dodgeball game developed in partnership with Niantic, the games company behind Pokémon Go, and smartphone maker Samsung.
SKT is now in talks with Niantic and other cloud-gaming companies about the development of new augmented-reality games that take advantage of edge computing.
It also plans to open its edge platform to enterprise customers and applications developers, enabling them to connect their IT and service delivery platforms to SKT's edge computing platform.
Factories that need to improve the response time of robots are among the operator's target audience.
By providing open APIs (application programming interfaces), SKT hopes to make it easier for companies to develop their own edge-based applications.
SKT did not say how many of its small-scale data centers have now been deployed in South Korea, but European operators are holding off on any major investment in edge computing amid uncertainty about the business case and technical challenges.
Vodafone's Petty says the rollout of edge computing will introduce new players into the network and bring operational complexity for operators.
Others doubt the financial returns on edge computing for the operators making the investments. "I can play quite advanced games with my smartphone where I depend on decent latency, but I am not paying for it," says Bengt Nordström, the CEO of Northstream, a consulting company in Sweden. "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."
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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading