You can’t have 5G without an interconnected edge

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5G is coming to Asia in the next year or two, but whether it lives up to the hype depends not on gigabit radio links but a well-engineered network edge backed by a solid global interconnection platform.

Major telecommunications companies as well as governments in Asia-Pacific are starting to roll out initiatives related to the deployment of 5G technologies. South Korea will likely be the first regional market to switch on 5G, and by 2020 we should see 5G rollouts in Japan, China, Singapore and Hong Kong.

But is the region really ready for 5G?

5G wireless broadband technology will undoubtedly bring an exponential increase in data speeds, which can be up to 100 times faster than that of 4G. This in turn will change how people interact with the internet. For example, download time for an HD movie could go from an hour to a few seconds.

5G will help to power remote surgeries and some say truly autonomous vehicles aren’t possible without it. 5G will connect a higher density of devices, people and things in smaller areas – faster and with lower latency than ever. It will be critical to supporting innovations like Internet of Things (IoT), smart cities and the next level of VR, promising to inspire an astounding array of innovations and new services.

The move to 4G was a big leap itself, as it enabled the richer mobile video content we currently enjoy, as well as the proliferation of anytime, anywhere, any device connectivity. 5G takes the proliferation of connectivity to the next level, and is poised to revolutionize the networking industry. 5G will not only enable 4K-level HD video, but also supercharge virtual reality and create waves of innovation and applications that will disrupt every industry from tourism, real estate, fleet management to advertising. Consumers will enjoy a more realistic and real time experience.

However, many 5G applications will depend on ultra-low latency and a level of throughput that today’s networks aren’t built to consistently deliver. Data being generated by IoT devices is growing faster than networks are able to process. With the additional bandwidth of 5G, this problem is likely to be eased. Alongside the boom of IoT and autonomous technologies, 5G will require complex interconnected networks to fulfill the challenges of increased coverage, enhanced data throughput and high bandwidth demand.

According to the Global Interconnection Index, interconnection bandwidth in Asia-Pacific is expected to grow 46% per year to reach 1,120 Tbps of installed capacity, approaching nearly a quarter (22%) of global traffic by the end of this decade. Specifically, telecommunications will remain to be one of the largest users of interconnection bandwidth in the region and is expected to grow at a CAGR of 25%, sharing 15% of the total interconnection bandwidth in 2020. This projection underscores the critical role interconnection plays in 5G in the region.

To prepare for 5G, companies need to move IT to the edge, close to the users who are actually consuming these services. That’s going to require a shift in mindset that puts the edge, and interconnection, at the center of network design.

Shifting high-density deployments to the digital edge

In a 5G world, a traditional, centralized network architecture that delivers traffic from users to a distant corporate data center isn’t just prohibitively costly – it’s a non-starter. There’s too much data, and latency tolerance for many 5G apps is too low.

Take the example of remote surgery, during which a surgeon using virtual reality goggles and haptic gloves (which let users feel and touch in virtual reality) can operate on a patient half a world away via a robot. This requires a level of latency and throughput that 4G just can’t handle. Of course, latency isn’t just a problem in serious situations such as surgery. It can cause the lag that ruins a multi-player VR video game as well.

Moving IT infrastructure and data towards the edge, which reduces the distance between applications and users, is the only way to ensure low latency. For 5G applications to unleash the performance they are expected to deliver, network operators will need to deploy small cell technology in extremely high densities at the edge, where their users are consuming services. In a typical city neighborhood, for instance, dozens of shoebox-sized small cells might be mounted on public infrastructure such as telephone poles and street lights. In less populated areas, operators will need to significantly increase the density of existing networks by building new macro cell sites.

This need for high-density IT deployments isn’t just about a data influx or the need for proximity. Many 5G network operators say they plan to maximize data speed by using millimeter wave – extremely high frequency spectrums. However millimeter wave has limited range and can be disrupted by conditions as common as humidity and rain. Heavy concentrations of small cell technologies are needed to offset that.

Interconnection sits at the center of 5G apps

Establishing these high-density deployments at the edge can be easier with the help of an interconnection platform that spans the top global markets. Interconnection, which refers to the private data exchange between businesses, is the fastest, most secure level of connectivity, and it will be the core driving force for 5G. The interconnection platform needs to be smarter, adaptive and automated by leveraging SDN architecture.

Empowered by the capabilities of 5G, users worldwide are expected to download and upload high-definition content more often and in greater quantities. That means data centers need to be close enough to 5G radio towers to meet SLAs for supporting time-sensitive content. Moreover, data at the edge is predicted to continue to grow exponentially at such a pace that a single local data center will be hard-pressed to keep up with demand.

To address this, a globally distributed data center network that is scalable and able to perform content-related activities such as dynamic load sharing, data backup and replication, as well as database synchronization is essential.

Telecom companies need the flexibility to expand as the edge evolves, as well as effortless access to their clouds, networks, data and partners, so they can directly connect to whatever they need, wherever they need it. A constantly growing global interconnection platform made up of multiple data centers spread across metropolitan cities will serve as a key platform to help companies handle whatever 5G will throw at them. By distributing IT among global interconnection hubs, companies can make sure they are close to their users, clouds, partners and markets around the globe.

Not everyone is ready for 5G yet because not everyone is committed to networks designed around the edge. However, a global interconnection platform that gets companies to the edge with speed, safety and cost-efficiency can get a lot of people a lot closer to 5G than they’ve ever been, making 2020 a truly feasible timeline for the implementation of 5G services across Asia-Pacific.

Anthony Ho, director of regional product management at Equinix Asia-PacificWritten by Anthony Ho, director of regional product management at Equinix Asia-Pacific

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