It is just over a year since South Korea’s SK Telecom launched the world’s first commercial 5G service, on April 3, 2019. In a recent announcement to mark the anniversary, the company, which is the country's mobile market leader, revealed 5G progress – subscriber base of 2.2 million and 45 percent market share − as well as its plans to deliver business growth with the fifth-generation cellular technology over the next few years.
While in the consumer realm those plans include Project xCloud, a step change in the mobile gaming experience enabled by via 5G’s high-speed, high-bandwidth connections to cloud servers, SK Telecom is placing a particularly strong focus on the enterprise segment by working with companies in diverse sectors in order to, in its words, “catalyse industrial innovations in Korea”.
Those collaborations include one with semiconductor giant SK Hynix − to develop a smart factory based on a private 5G network deployment; with Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power (KHNP) to realize a 5G smart power plant; and with LG Electronics to develop and commercialize 5G cloud-based autonomous robots.
Investing at the Edge
Significantly, SK Telecom’s 5G anniversary announcement also detailed its plans to build 5G MEC (multi-access edge computing) centers in 12 different locations across the country in order to “lead a cloud-driven industrial revolution”. As defined by ETSI (European Telecommunications Standards Institute), multi-access edge computing is an IT service environment provided at the edge of a mobile network and characterized by ultra-low latency, high bandwidth and real-time access to radio network information for leverage by applications.
In the context of industrial 5G, MEC allows communications from factories to/from cloud-server hosted applications to meet critical latency requirements by removing the latency component associated with directly connecting to cloud computing infrastructure sited at distant data centers, and hence enables the flexible and unfettered use of productivity and quality enhancing technologies such as augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR), machine vision and robotics. As well as the distributed type of MEC that SK Telecom is deploying at its own premises, MEC can also be implemented on-site at individual end user facilities, which can help to ease data security and privacy concerns as well as further reduce latency.
The aforementioned SK Telecom/LG Electronics 5G cloud-based autonomous robot project intends to make use of MEC technology, while SK Telecom competitor KT plans to use MEC in a collaboration with Cognex to develop a 5G based machine vision solution and also with Hyundai Heavy Industries to integrate 5G technology in the development of autonomous robots and smart factory facilities. According to company chairman Hwang Chang-Gyu, KT's edge-cloud architecture has led to the establishment of edge-computing telecom centers in major cities across the country, lowering the 5G latency to a 5 ms level.
Of course, multi-access edge computing activities are not restricted to Korea. Mobile operators of the likes of AT&T and Verizon in the US and Deutsche Telekom and Vodafone in Europe are all at various stages of MEC deployments and are actively exploring and promoting use cases that can best leverage the technology. Verizon, for example, touts the following potential applications for 5G + MEC: autonomous vehicles; immersive experiences (AR/VR); massive IoT (MIoT); connected factories; next-level logistics; and smart communities (public safety, transit, utilities, citizen engagement).
It is not surprising that the major cellular network technology suppliers such as Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia have developed MEC solutions for their telco customers. However, the market is also seeing activity from new entrants and non-traditional telecoms industry players. SK Telecom, for example, is partnering with MobiledgeX, a company funded by Deutsche Telekom but independently run in San Francisco, for its MEC deployments. Verizon is making use of Amazon’s AWS Wavelength 5G edge computing platform, which was launched in December 2019. And AT&T has an edge computing collaboration with Microsoft, building on a broader partnership between the two companies announced last year at MWC 2019 in Barcelona.