CoBank Touting Edge Computing

A recent article from CoBank is titled, Partnerships are Key for Rural Telecom Operators in Burgeoning Edge Computing Market. The article points out that there are potential opportunities for ISPs to grab a small piece of the edge computing market.

The article defines edge computing as a network architecture where data is stored and/or processed at locations close to where applications are being used. The growth of edge computing is an interesting phenomenon to watch because it reverse the trend of the last decade, where the goal was to move as much data as possible to large data centers and not process or store at the edge.

However, as the volume of data being generated by companies has increased exponentially, the tasks of moving data back and forth from data centers has added cost and time to the equation. Companies are looking deeper at the data they generate and are realizing that a lot of the data doesn’t need to be permanently cached at data centers. Companies also want to avoid the added latency from moving and processing things in a data center.

The article cites the following potential opportunities.

  • C-RAN. The trend identified is for cellular companies to process customer connection functions locally at cell sites instead of in the cloud. The opportunity for rural ISPs is to cell more connectivity to the expanding number of cell sites. However, is cellular data is processed locally, that would imply smaller transport bandwidth needed at each cell site.
  • Private Wireless Networks. The cellular carriers and companies like Microsoft and Amazon are likely to tackle this market. While there may be a few large customers in rural markets that want to participate in a private wireless network, the big opportunity is in selling the service to farms. Local ISPs can partner with one of the big application developers that will provide a communications suite for farms. The ISP opportunity will be selling transport to farms, but also possibly being hired to maintain farm wireless devices and monitors.
  • Internet of Things (IoT). This is the trend to develop smart sensors that can handle data locally without sending everything to a data center. Like with C-RAN, it seems like a stretch to see a role for a small rural ISP in the market other than perhaps being the local agent for the sensor devices.
  • Self-Driving Cars. The article relies on a prediction that a self-driving car will need to offload as much as 5,000 gigabits per hour of driving. I find it impossible to believe that anybody is going to invest in the network in rural areas that will ever serve this market. Most of the auto industry is chasing a future where vehicles will possess the needed computing power onboard rather than rely on somebody building a fiber network and billions of sensors along every mile of US highways. I was surprised to see this in the CoBank article since the chances of this happening seem slim.

The only opportunity on this list that might realistically materialize in the next decade and be a revenue opportunity for rural ISPs is private wireless networks for farms. It’s not hard to imagine a business relationship where rural ISPs become the local agent for smart farming connectivity and devices, in much the same way that many local ISPs were the agent for products like DirecTV. It’s not hard to imagine the rural ISP industry associations negotiating a contract for such services on behalf of members, making it easy to participate.

I was intrigued to see CoBank writing this article because bankers generally concentrate on opportunities that are either here today or on the immediate horizon. This article talks about pretty futuristic stuff. The question any rural ISP will ask is if any of these applications will ever become tangible and actionable. I remember a decade ago when the rage in the industry was telling rural ISPs that there was a lot of money to be made in fostering cellular offload to WiFi. I can’t think of anybody I know that ever made a nickel on the idea, but you couldn’t go to an industry meeting without somebody promoting the idea. There is a whole lot of steps that have to happen  before any of these edge-computing ideas turn into something that the average rural ISP can profitably participate in. But I have no doubt that some of the ideas in this article, or applications we haven’t thought of, will become real eventually. The one thing that rural ISPs have that is hard to duplicate is a local presence and local technical expertise.

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