The Role of Edge Computing in Supporting 5G Adoption

POSTED BY Adam Wears

Edge computing is a form of distributed computing wherein computationally intensive tasks are undertaken not at a centralised cloud storage facility several hundred miles away, but either by the device that collected the data, a larger on-premises gateway, or an off-premises edge node that still remains relatively close to the end user. By arranging their networks in this way, operators and enterprises can benefit from reductions in latency and lag, as well as significant savings in bandwidth costs.

Multi-access Edge Computing, or MEC, refers to edge computing in the context of mobile cellular networks. Much like ‘traditional’ edge computing, MEC reduces latency and other performance issues inherent to cloud-based servers by running applications and data-intensive tasks at the edge of their networks. One crucial distinction is that by utilising MEC, application developers and content providers can distribute content and services using operators’ radio access networks; allowing for a better, more seamless user experience. And indeed, our latest report on edge computing found that network operator spend on MEC (Multi-access Edge Computing) will grow from $2.7 billion in 2020, to $8.3 billion in 2025, as operators invest heavily in upgrading network capacities and infrastructure to support the increasing data generated by 5G networks.

While there may be a wealth of differences between edge computing and 5G, the goal that these technologies share means that edge computing is capable of supercharging 5G connections beyond its advertised limits. 5G increases network speeds by up to ten times that of 4G. When coupled with MEC, however, the speed of data transmission is further increased by virtue of how the data is only moving to/from the end user from/to a local edge node. Alongside supercharging its network speeds, MEC will also enhance 5G’s inherent ability to handle more connections than 4G.

The level of deployment of 5G is currently limited. However, a growing number of countries have launched, or plan to launch, commercial 5G networks. Of these, several operators have also taken the opportunity to embed MEC into their new service, such as Vodafone and Deutsche Telekom.

While the promises of 5G are exciting and innumerable, the differing levels of adoption around the world mean that even in countries where there is a thriving market for 5G, developers and enterprises are reticent to throw their full support behind it. This is problematic for operators. Without support from developers and enterprises producing 5G products, the market for 5G will continue to develop at a relatively slow pace in locations where the market does not exist because, without those products, consumer demand does not exist either; but without the market in these locations, developers and enterprises will continue to be reticent about developing 5G products, because of a lack of a clear path to a return on investment. This is what is known as the ‘go slow’ cycle.

As a means of counteracting the cycle, however, operators could utilise edge technologies in the short term to provide a level playing field, and in the long term, seed a 5G market where the biggest vendors and players are reluctant to invest. By upgrading their existing 4G networks with MEC, network operators can create a ‘stopgap’ service that bridges 4G and 5G, which combines the low latency of 5G with the ubiquity of 4G. This will likely prove a sufficient incentive for developers and vendors to begin developing high-bandwidth products that, in the long term, can be made compatible with 5G.

Our latest whitepaper, Edge Computing: 5G’s Secret Weapon, analyses the benefits of edge computing as well as highlighting its role in facilitating widespread 5G adoption in different markets.

Download the Whitepaper: Edge Computing: 5G’s Secret Weapon

Related Research: Edge Computing