In Business Model, Internet Access, Mobile

Edge computing is almost always touted as a necessity in the 5G era to support ultra-low-latency services, the typical examples being support for autonomous vehicles, remote surgery or even prosaic requirements such as supporting channel changes on video screens supporting ultra-high-definition TV (4k, 8K, virtual reality).

But are there are other possibilities? Consider the advent of the Chromebook, a “PC” that essentially conducts all computing activities at a remote cloud data center. The advantage is lower-cost customer premises equipment (CPE).

Sure, one needs a screen, power supply, keyboard and some amount of on-board memory and processing. But not so much. It often is said, with a good measure of truth, that a Chromebook is a device supporting a browser, and not much more.

So can edge computing support a similar approach to the design of smartphones, essentially creating a device that resembles earlier efforts to create network-centric computing devices? Maybe, some think.

Could edge computing create new opportunities for access providers supplying phone services? AT&T believes that could happen.

AT&T plans to build thousands of small edge computing data centers in central offices and other locations across the United States. So could a big edge computing network affect mobile phone design as much as cloud computing has affected the design and use of computing devices? AT&T’s Mazin Gilbert, VP, thinks that is a possibility.

Edge computing could create the conditions for really cheap smartphones. “Can my $1,000 mobile phone be $10 or $20 dollars, where all the intelligence is really sitting at the edge?,” Gilbert asks. “It’s absolutely possible.”

That obviously would dramatically reduce barriers to smartphone use by everyone, while providing some means of differentiation for access services provided by AT&T. Both trends would provide more reasons for consumers or businesses to use the AT&T network, instead of rival networks.

It has been decades since tier-one telcos actually had a significant role in customer premises equipment business. Back in the monopoly era, telcos actually made and sold the phone devices people used. In fact, it was illegal to use any phone not manufactured by the service provider.

In the competitive era, service providers have been irrelevant as suppliers of CPE, as that role was ceded to device suppliers active in the consumer electronics space.

Edge computing could change those assumptions. Perhaps a firm such as AT&T licenses the building of cheap smartphones that rely extensively on edge computing and are designed to work on AT&T’s network.

As always, that approach will start out as a “useful for many people” but not a “full and complete substitute” for standard smartphones able to work globally. But not every customer requires global roaming. For most customers, coverage most places in the United States will work.

As any Chromebook user will attest, the “connect to Wi-Fi or you cannot do too much” approach is not perfect. You cannot “compute” anywhere (except to conduct offline transactions or activities). But it works, especially if one has the ability to tether to a smartphone.

Something like that could be possible once edge computing is fully built out.

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