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Mobile Edge Congress

Could Mobile Edge Computing transform your next European City Break? Article


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Guest post by: Andy Jones, Jonesthefone Consulting Limited

Later this month the mobile industry will make its annual pilgrimage to Barcelona. Yes, it’s Mobile World Congress time again. Amongst the hubbub around the stands and booths of the Fira Gran Via there will be much talk about 5G. When, Where, What and even Why will the next incarnation of mobile become a reality?

One of the technologies cited as a key enabler for 5G – earning it the dubious honour of a place on the Gartner Hype Cycle – is Mobile Edge Computing or MEC. Currently being trialled and piloted by many mobile operators and being standardised by an ETSI International Standardisation Group consisting of a growing list of operators and technology providers, MEC is being prepared for its curtain call on the main stage. But what’s the rush? 5G is at least 5 years away. Well, despite being associated with 5G, MEC has some exciting applications in 4G networks too.

Last time I was in Barcelona, I was on vacation. A relaxing city break with the family. I had been every year since I can’t remember when – but that was work. Now I was going to see Barcelona for the first time as a tourist. For the rest of the family it was their first time. Top of our sightseeing itinerary were Gaudi’s outlandish architectural gems – the Sagrada Familia looking gloriously unfinished and Casa Batllo, an organic vegetative alien inserted into the cityscape. Once inside Casa Batllo we were each handed a tablet on which an augmented reality (AR) tour became our guide. Panning around with the camera of the tablet, each room came alive with animations and interactive experiences that enhanced our visit and remain truly memorable. This was AR done well. It was immersive, without being intrusive or clunky. It never detracted from the sense of wandering wherever you please – just being there to explain and enrich when called upon. I was instantly an AR convert!

Once our tour was over, we found ourselves outside again in the busy streets. I felt a bit lost. I was missing my AR guide! It suddenly occurred to me that the whole city could benefit from the same subtle AR makeover! But alas I had surrendered my tourist’s tablet and bespoke app at the exit gate – I was alone with my Dorling Kindersley guidebook. I felt like I had been returned unceremoniously to the 1990s!

What would it take to enable AR for tens of thousands of tourists on a city-wide basis? Firstly, contiguous coverage and available capacity. Mobile networks ostensibly solve these first fundamental requirements, although in reality both of these can be challenging in crowded public spaces. But with careful planning and adequate investment, these 2 basic requirements are solved by 4G networks today. The next fundamental barrier to overcome is network latency. Augmenting the view of the city on a smart phone or tablet screen requires a response time of a few milliseconds. Today in 4G this is impossible. The air interface is not the issue. It’s the distance in kilometres of fibre to reach the centralised cloud computing location where the app is anchored and where the AR content is being served and refreshed. The round-trip time can be 10s of milliseconds. This creates lag. Lag between reality and augmented reality kills the user experience. At best, it’s annoying. At worst it’s motion sickness-inducing! No amount of radio or IP innovation can eliminate this lag. The speed of light in optical fibre is fixed – physics is not on our side! Eliminating this lag requires redistribution of content and applications from central clouds to distributed edge-clouds. Some call these cloudlets. Others call it the “Fog”. ETSI calls it MEC.

This applciation may appear frivolous. After all, where’s the money in enabling AR for the tourism industry? Can the business case for a tourist location such as Casa Batllo be extrapolated to the whole city? What new value chain would provide a mechanism that would ensure a return on investment (ROI) in the required MEC infrastructure? MEC has come a long way since its earliest conceptual trials around 5 years ago. Originally it was conceived as the deployment of compute and storage into radio base stations. Now, other deployment models are emerging and the hub site, serving clusters of radio sites, tends to be preferred. This allows whole cities to be MEC-enabled more economically by deploying MEC at a few strategic hub locations insead of every base station needing to be MECanised. That helps on the cost side of the ROI equation whicle still being close enough to the edge to overcome latency and major elements of backhaul cost.

The revenue side of the equation is of course more open to debate. It’s unlikely that a single application will ever become the winning lottery ticket to fund network-wide MEC deployment. The AR capability that MEC enables is equally applicable across several other sectors and venues: retail shopping malls, sports stadia; music venues. These locations all have something in common – apart from having a dense consumer population that is potentially open to a spontaneous purchase – and that is their sharply defined geographical boundary. Making a business case for national MEC coverage is tough – it would take a few thousand MEC nodes to cover a country like Germany or the UK. Whereas, enabling MEC at Wembley Stadium, along Oxford Street and at Glastonbury – that’s more of a targeted investment in locations that have a captive audience that is already in a frame of mind to spend!

In this article I’ve looked at MEC from the perspective of a consumer augmented reality use case. This is one of many MEC use cases being developed, trialled and in some markets being deployed. Other use cases include: connected vehicles, e-Health, industry automation, intelligent video acceleration, gaming and Internet of Things. For each of these use cases it is vitally important to identify a MEC rollout strategy that delivers a healthy ROI. In future postings I will seek to explore further the close association between MEC rolllout, enablement of use cases and return on investment.

12th February 2016Andy Jones headshot
Andy Jones
Jonesthefone Consulting Limited

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