The cloud is moving closer, largely because of the rise of 5G wireless. That was a central lesson of a recent Techonomy roundtable on “The Infrastructure of the Near Future.” The session was presented in partnership with Wipro. 5G operates so fundamentally differently from the wireless networks that preceded it that a complete reorientation of how data systems are physically located in society is likely to result. It will enable a dazzling array of new digital capabilities and applications. And this so-called “edge” computing era is arriving just when we need it, because the Covid-19 crisis has decisively changed, finally, the attitude of business towards digitization.
“The digital glass ceiling has been broken” during the ongoing crisis, said Milan Rao, president of Wipro, one of the two panelists. Mo Katibeh, chief marketing officer for AT&T Business, echoed his sentiment, saying “Covid is the final push to digital.” Rao noted that in the past, companies, even at senior levels, were filled with “naysayers” on digital, so “it was hard for CIOs and CTOs and CEOs to actually get through that glass ceiling and ensure digital transformation takes place within their organization.” But he noted that during a business sales cycle a buyer may want a “proof of concept” to become convinced. “Well the proof of concept is here,” he continued, referring to the real new needs surfaced by the health crisis as people worked from home and network connections proved indispensable. “It is a living proof of concept.”
The central change in digital infrastructure now underway is the reorientation of cloud computing in parallel with the rollout of 5G. Katibeh explained some of the capabilities of 5G, noting that it is not merely faster than the 3G and 4G networks that preceded it. He pointed to two specific differences—5G supports vastly more devices per access point, and has extremely low “latency,” or the time it takes to respond back to a request from an endpoint. (That request could come from an individual on a smartphone or a sensor on an assembly line.) “Wi-fi is a couple of hundred things per access point. LTE is up to 1,000,” he explained. But a 5G node can have as many as one million “internet of things” (IoT) devices connected to it.
And the reduced latency of 5G will enable a variety of different experiences for both consumers and business. Katibeh called the new networks “a materially-different experience.” Here’s a consumer example: unlike previous network generations, the speed of network response when using a virtual reality headset over 5G will finally exceed the pace at which the brain processes new information. That will eliminate one of the biggest drawbacks of VR thus far—a tendency to induce nausea because it takes so long for the system to respond to a user movement. Who knows what other capabilities that will allow to emerge?
This new wireless technology will thus require far more access to data, more quickly, with vast implications for both business and consumer computing. So we are seeing the rise of so-called “edge” computing. Smaller, more distributed cloud data centers are moving closer to the action in two ways, Katibeh said. New data centers that enable super-rapid access to data are coming inside institutions and enterprises like hospitals, office buildings, manufacturing facilities, large retail stores, or sports stadiums. At the same time, cloud infrastructure is moving closer to the center of urban areas. “You need to bring the cloud much, much closer to the end user,” he said.
Today, Katibeh explained, “in America most of those cloud infrastructure nodes are sitting on one of the two coasts. That generally means they are hundreds or thousands of miles away…especially from those of us in mid-America.” (He lives in Dallas.) To achieve the “sub-20 millisecond” response times 5G is capable of means the data centers must be within 10 to 20 miles of the end user. AT&T is partnering with Microsoft cloud service Azure, among others, to bring data centers close to cities countrywide, he said. A huge part of AT&T’s role in enabling this set of transitions will be bringing its fiber networks to all these locations. The new wireless networks will require a lot of wiring in the back end.
Another major consequence of this new era, said Wipro’s Rao, is that the role of software is greater. It will accelerate what are called “software-defined networks” and virtualization, or the creation of functions formerly performed by physical devices that are now accomplished with software. “Everything is going to get software defined.” He continued: “Ultimately when you talk about edge computing it’s about how do you deliver the cloud infrastructure, the network infrastructure, the storage, the computer, the intelligence, the security, all at one time. So it’s a very large ecosystem play…A host of different companies come into play.”
Partly because of this multi-faceted nature of future networks, Rao said, “5G will require a lot more capex [capital expenditure] than previous versions.” He said because of that, a key factor that will determine where and how it gets rolled out will be industrial use cases. The companies and industries most committed to digital transformation will be the ones that drive adoption of 5G. And conversely, he explained, for 5G to move rapidly into developing countries will depend on the willingness of industries there to drive the initial investment and rollout, for applications they themselves use. The more industrialized the country, the faster the 5G rollout is likely to be.
Katibeh said AT&T is driving ahead quickly in the United States. It has already deployed 5G in 190 cities, and expects nationwide coverage, serving more than 200 million Americans, by summer. Meanwhile, any company or factory can get 5G installed today.
As this infrastructure helps us move towards a more digitized post-Covid society, experiences all around us are likely to change. Katibeh foresees a huge and permanent new concern for safety and health. Consumers in a clothing store, for example, may no longer want to try on clothes that could have been touched recently by other unknown shoppers. So he predicts “magic mirrors”–large high-resolution digital displays–to enable virtual try-ons. No changing rooms. And not even a physical bag to bring home. “It’s drop-shipped home in a very clean and healthy way.”
Techonomy drew on its live audience to conduct a few polls. Here are the results: