AT&T testing drones using computing at edge of 5G networks

27 February 2019 | Alan Burkitt-Gray

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AT&T is launching edge computing services that it will deliver to enterprises using 5G wireless – and is testing the system on drones.

The company announced at Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona that the company is working with Microsoft to deliver Azure cloud services at the edge of low-latency 5G networks.

The company is calling the service Network Edge Computing (NEC), said Mo Katibeh, AT&T Business’s chief marketing officer. It’s a “truly extraordinary shift” in the company’s development of business services.

The company has already launched business services over 4G and fixed networks, a service called Multi-access Edge Computing (MEC). But 5G-based NEC will be available when customers need low latency, “less than 10ms”, said Katibeh.

AT&T Business also plans to offer private 5G networks that will operate inside factories, campuses and other sites.

“NEC is similar to MEC, but with better latency than cloud,” said Katibeh in Barcelona. He said the company is carrying out a proof of concept with Microsoft Azure at the AT&T Foundry in Plano, Texas.

Thaddeus Aroyo (pictured), CEO of AT&T Business, said that enterprises will be able to split traffic between edge computing or the cloud. “Any application will be able to use a virtual network function to use local compute” – for example, when privacy or latency requirements require the data to be handled locally rather than in the cloud.

“We see a lot of potential applications if you bring compute closer,” said Arroyo.

Katibeh added: “We’re creating new ways for our customers to directly access a multitude of cloud options closer to where they do business.”

The Plano trial involves the use of drones that will be controlled via the NEC. AT&T said: “The service can be useful to commercial drone monitoring, airports, public safety law enforcement agencies and others needing the ability to identify drone and operator locations in near-real time, enhancing monitoring and mitigation.”

The application will run using Azure cloud services delivered through the Plano trial, to test the benefit of low latencies available with NEC.