Defining the elusive network "edge" is an evolving process. Some envision a world where edge data centers are located at the base of cell towers because that location already has a fiber connection and a power supply. Others believe the network edge is further away from the cell site, where cloud computing technologies can handle services for several different applications. But no matter the edge scenario, the goal is the same: to bring the network closer to the source of the data so that lower latency is achieved.
Vertical Bridge is the largest private cell tower operator in the US, with more than 300,000 owned or master-leased sites, including 8,000 towers in the US. The company says it believes the best location for the "physical" edge of the network is as close to the data as possible. That's why it's developing a strategy called "edge to suit," which means it works closely with customers to figure out the best location for their edge data centers, regardless of whether there is a tower nearby or not.
"We don't believe, in the 5G architecture, that the edge will be at a tower site," explained Bernard Borghei, executive VP of operations and co-founder of Vertical Bridge. "The edge location will be as close to where the data is generated."
Borghei said that Vertical Bridge is currently working with a few wireless operators and those operators dictate where they would like their edge location to be. Vertical Bridge then uses its real estate and infrastructure expertise to develop the site and make sure it has fiber connectivity and security. It then enlists the help of its partner, EdgePresence, which builds and operates multi-tenant edge computing centers. EdgePresence then looks for additional tenants for that edge site, and manages the rack space and power consumption for each tenant. Vertical Bridge and EdgePresence are both DigitalBridge portfolio companies.
The two companies have already embarked on an edge deployment in Statesboro, Georgia, but it does combine an EdgePresence data center with a Vertical Bridge tower site. The site is close to Georgia Southern University as well as a shopping center. Both of these venues provide potential tenants for the edge site.
Borghei said that the business model for a "physical" edge site is very similar to a tower. The company secures an anchor tenant and then fills the space with additional tenants that might benefit from having an edge location nearby.
"EdgePresence has a pipeline of enterprise accounts that are good candidates," Borghei said. "Those candidates will drive incremental revenue opportunities."
Borghei declined to name the operators Vertical Bridge is working with. However, the company does have a tower contract with Dish Network, which is building a greenfield 5G standalone (5G SA) network. Borghei predicts 5G SA networks will need a lot of edge locations because the technology promises to support high-speed, low-latency connections for applications such as gaming and virtual reality.
However, he also said that it's still unclear what applications will drive the adoption of 5G SA, and that means it is difficult to say how many of these "edge to suit" sites will be needed. "There could be hundreds of thousands of edge locations," he said, or "it could be 50,000 sites, or it could be 30,000 sites, depending upon how much traffic these networks start carrying."
And Borghei doesn't think these edge locations will only be in urban and suburban markets. "I think rural America is going to be a good target for these edge data centers," he said. "Operators aren't going to want to use a fiber network to carry the data to a city to be processed and then carry it back to the user," he said. "The edge micro-data centers can do 70% of the computing of the data, so it doesn't have to be transported hundreds of miles."
— Sue Marek, special to Light Reading. Follow her @suemarek.