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Mobile Communications October 2019 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Michael Gold

Use Cases for Edge Computing

Why is this topic significant?

Computers that are nearer to users than data centers are will help deliver innovative mobile applications by reducing network delays.

Description

Edge computing is a poor name for the use of computers in locations at any intermediate position between end-user devices and distant data centers. For example, edge computers can reside in sites that serve groups of base stations and in telephone companies' local switching offices. These computers can provide responses more quickly than centralized facilities can while still off-loading tasks from a mobile device and conserving its battery power. Reduced need to communicate with a distant data center can decrease traffic loads and the expenses of data service.

Content-distribution networks (CDNs) operate local and regional servers that serve large portions of the world's population. CDNs have various duties—the most famous ones being the distribution of streaming content while keeping delays and buffering to a minimum. Third parties can also use CDNs to perform computing—not just host or cache content—in relative proximity to end users. Leading CDNs have made ongoing improvements to their edge-computing capabilities, including during recent months.

Implications

Edge-computing applications that would affect end-user experiences emphasize cloud gaming, speech recognition with improved responsiveness and fluency, virtual-desktop applications for low-cost end-user devices, augmented reality (AR), robots, and some styles of automated or driverless vehicles. AR headsets for free-roaming use seem likely to depend on edge computers because onboard processing would involve excessively large and heavy wearables, and because processing at distant data centers would impose unacceptable delays. Also, unless battery developers have a breakthrough, robots will need to off-load computation to save power. Ideally, that computation will have delays that are as brief as possible to support mechatronic hand-eye coordination.

Before AR and robots become more widely available, edge computers might become important for high-end cloud gaming, fluent-speech interfaces, and virtual-desktop services for thin-client devices. Longer-term developments could include transportation. With or without driverless technology, fixed sensors that detect unsafe conditions at intersections would require edge computers to expedite messaging or automatic braking signals to cars.

Near-term opportunities in edge computing focus on applications that secure and streamline an organization's operations. For example, edge computers have unique abilities to address challenges in implementing analytics for networks of video-surveillance cameras and other sensor networks. As part of comprehensive network-defense strategies, dedicated cybersecurity appliances in diverse positions within networks will likely see increased use. Someone who is fond of buzzwords might say that edge computers will become critical infrastructure for enabling softwarization of industries, network-function virtualization, gateways for the Internet of Things, and AI-enabled cybersecurity operations.

Impacts/Disruptions

Standards and quasi-standards for 4G and 5G systems describe many computers in many positions in networks. Many professionals place computers routinely, wherever and whenever computers are necessary. Network automation and cybersecurity technologies might progress independently of edge-computing trends. The truly unique aspects of edge computing would then have their greatest effects on advanced end-user applications rather than on the ways that organizations operate.

Some developers favor a radical proposal for future network architectures: a decentralized web (Dweb) that would fully eliminate dependence on a centralized infrastructure. Dweb champions favor decentralized and peer-to-peer implementations of social networks, transaction processes, the World Wide Web, and more. End-user devices alone are not likely sufficient to realize these goals; synergies between edge computers and the Dweb will likely emerge.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium to High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years to 15 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Cellular services, managed-communications-service provision, network-equipment manufacturing, application-software development, developer-tool supply, speech-recognition-technology development

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Technology Gaps for First Responders

Why is this topic significant?

Although long-term technology road maps for emergency communications are in place, gaps remain in the set of solutions that addresses near-term needs.

Description

Long-term efforts to modernize communications systems for first responders tend to revolve around two related efforts: development of national cellular networks having dedicated capacity for handling emergencies, and development of interoperable standards for links having enhanced reliability, device-to-device connections, in-vehicle base stations, and more. Meanwhile, near-term challenges have become general constraints on progress.

The UK Emergency Services Network—a new national cellular system for first responders that will replace existing noncellular digital-wireless technology—is experiencing cost overruns and delays, with network availability now scheduled for 2023. In the United States, a new national cellular system for first responders is in a slow-moving deployment phase. AT&T controls the FirstNet joint venture, which has exclusive rights to build US infrastructure that uses LTE Band 14. The US Congress has designated those frequencies "for use by public safety entities." However, FirstNet has no exclusive franchise to serve public-safety agencies and must compete against Verizon and others. As of April 2019, FirstNet reportedly serves 570,000 users at 7,000 agencies; however, in 2018, a company official estimated that the United States has 10 million to 15 million "primary and extended primary public-safety responders."

Limited availability of cellular-compatible push-to-talk capabilities has impeded market development. Though availability could improve in coming months, questions remain about whether a firefighter who uses Verizon will be able to communicate with an ambulance driver who uses FirstNet. Users may also require connectivity for body cameras and notebook computers even when they are not within range of a vehicle's built-in Wi-Fi access point. Such wireless services can be costly, with limited choices of end-user devices. Suitable and secure application software for a user's device is not necessarily available.

US deployments of cellular services for first responders are facing a range of additional challenges. At present, FirstNet mainly relies on the same frequencies that the public uses, with a lag in deployment of base stations and phones that use dedicated frequencies for public-safety personnel. For those personnel, coverage is only as good as that offered by public cellular services. Verizon's service has its own teething problems; for example, it throttled the bandwidth of firefighters who were trying to control devastating wildfires in California during August 2018. Verizon seemed to blame fire-protection agencies for misunderstanding their calling plans, but perhaps no excuse justifies the result.

Implications

A shift to cellular networks for emergency communications is proving to be challenging. Existing solutions—some of which are based on analog-communications technologies—will continue to see extensive use until available cellular infrastructures and technologies catch up with the diverse needs of police, fire, ambulance, and dispatch services.

Impacts/Disruptions

Car and body cameras became popular in advance of new wireless standards and infrastructure developments. Additional trends could create wider gaps between needs and available cellular solutions. Communications links are current bottlenecks for available life-saving information systems in ambulances. Internet of Things applications need cloud servers to log video recordings and sensors in police vehicles, holsters, and gun racks. Emergency workers will likely make increasing use of drones, generating further demands for video connections. Agencies might also increase the use of robots for handling bombs and hostage situations. Generally, end-user devices for emergency workers could progress rapidly while emergency communications services might continue to progress at a slower pace.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: Now to 10 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Cellular-service provision, government-systems supply, equipment manufacturing, application-software development, radio engineering, sensor networking

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: