While US operators continue to bombard consumers with 5G smartphone promotions and competing claims about download speeds and network coverage, they are equally focused on enterprise use cases for the technology.

These are expected to provide the real 5G pay-off, but most enterprise applications require much more than a high-end smartphone.

Compute power and cloud compatibility are both essential to many of the mission-critical business applications that will be enabled by 5G’s high throughput, low latency and flexible architectures. Operators are learning their enterprise customers often need cloud applications to reside near corporate premises to safeguard data and reduce latency. They are using multi-access edge computing (MEC) to enable this.

More recently, operators have started integrating MEC with 5G. They are also installing private MEC platforms on customer premises. Each of the three nationwide US network operators has sought partnerships to better enable MEC for the enterprise.

AT&T recently announced a MEC alliance with Google Cloud, a partnership that will combine AT&T Network Edge with Google Cloud in 15 US cities, starting with Chicago this year. The companies hope by combining the AT&T network with applications like Google Maps and Pixel, businesses can create their own customised solutions.

AT&T and Google stated they want to give enterprises the flexibility to manage data on premise, in a customer’s data centre or in any cloud.

The operator also wants its customers to be able to use Microsoft Azure cloud solutions along with AT&T 5G. AT&T recently agreed to run its 5G core network in the Microsoft Azure cloud, a move it says will bring Azure “to the edge of our network…supporting our network workloads”.

Recon Analytics analyst Roger Entner told Mobile World Live (MWL) operators are likely to make multiple deals with cloud providers when it comes to MEC. “For MEC, it is quite logical for everyone to work with everyone”, he said. “Quite natural to hedge the bets there”.

Verizon is clearly hedging its bets with cloud providers. The operator is working extensively with both Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Microsoft Azure.

The company is bringing AWS to its own service access points, sites at which it aggregates network traffic. To date, Verizon has deployed Wavelength, an AWS platform designed for 5G networks, at ten US service access points. The company says more sites are planned.

In addition, Verizon is integrating its 5G applications with Outposts, the AWS platform meant for enterprise customer locations. Thierry Sender, director of IoT and real-time enterprise product strategy, told MWL this integration will be deployed later this year, and will enable enterprise customers to build workloads and publish capabilities to both Wavelength and Outposts.

Verizon will also be deploying Microsoft Azure as a private implementation during the second half of 2021, Sender said. “There is a lot that we are planning to do with Microsoft”, he explained. “It’s a very strong relationship”.

Sender added Verizon will work with both AWS and Azure for private MEC, and is currently working with AWS for public MEC.

T-Mobile US
T-Mobile has not yet partnered with a hyperscaler for MEC, but instead teamed up with internet service provider Lumen Technologies.

The operator is pairing its 5G network with Lumen’s edge computing platform, a combination the companies stated will give enterprises access to nationwide 5G, fibre, and edge compute resources. The pair recently extended their partnership to serve US government agencies.

After partnering with T-Mobile, Lumen agreed to incorporate Microsoft’s Azure platform into its edge sites, stating the alliance would eventually enable mutual customers to access private 5G networks.

T-Mobile stands alone among the US nationwide operators in not having announced a hyperscaler partnership for MEC, but its strategy could ultimately prove the most successful of the three. Its partner Lumen has millions of broadband customer relationships, and will likely be a first point of contact for companies considering MEC.

With the Azure platform in its portfolio, along with the T-Mobile partnership, Lumen potentially covers all the bases for companies looking to combine 5G and MEC. This could give T-Mobile an edge in the emerging market.

T-Mobile, Verizon and AT&T may show variances in their approach to delivering MEC to serve the enterprise market, but the fact all three are now focusing on the sector highlights their respective confidence in its potential.

Hedging their bets on how to serve this potential appears a canny strategy for what is still a somewhat fluid sector of the market, with the approach offering the operators the flexibility to meet diverse needs across a range of industries and the adaptability to swiftly focus on whichever method is the most successful, or relevant to individual use cases.

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.