American Tower owns a portfolio of 9 colocation data centers, including 6 edge and 3 metro facilities in the United States, which represent the foundation layers of its growing edge computing strategy. After acquiring Colo Atl in April 2019 for $75m, American Tower recently doubled-down on its data center strategy, purchasing DataSite in October 2021 for $201m. These 3 metro data centers complement American Tower’s 6 edge facilities which are smaller and deployed at the base of its cellular towers.
As American Tower’s edge computing strategy evolves, the company has articulated its framework for how it views the edge, what its role could be in the edge ecosystem, and how its value proposition makes the company differentiated. The company views the network edge in four distinct layers, namely the metro edge, aggregation edge, access edge, and on-premises edge – with its tower sites being part of the access edge.
American Tower’s motivation to accelerate its edge computing strategy is fueled by 5G technology enabling low-latency applications, which require compute, storage, and networking to be closer to end users. Particularly, these low-latency applications include augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), telemedicine, real-time analytics, autonomous driving, entertainment, and video/live streaming.
As 5G wireless networks evolve, the company foresees increased i) prevalence of cloud-native network solutions, ii) variations of the network edge (see above), and iii) convergence between wired and wireless network architecture.
Tower Infrastructure – Role in Edge Computing
American Tower’s value proposition as it relates to edge computing derives from its extensive distribution of 219k communications sites globally. At these sites, the company owns several passive infrastructure components that are critical to edge computing deployments at scale.
American Tower will often own the shelters, generators, cooling equipment, and land – as well as have access to power – at its various communications sites. As a result, the company leverages its exclusive real estate to capitalize on a neutral host model for edge computing.
Concurrently, advances in active infrastructure are also heightening the importance of edge computing, particularly as networks virtualize. For example, base station functionality will continue to transition to be cloud-native and software-defined, thus requiring edge computing.
However, radio equipment that is placed on the tower mast, which is the driver of American Tower’s revenue, will continue to reside on the tower.
Multiple Layers of the Network Edge – American Tower
American Tower views the network edge in multiple layers, being the metro edge, aggregation edge, access edge, and on-premises edge.
The most widespread layer of the network edge is the metro edge where large data center operators centralize compute and storage capabilities for data processing. These locations provide access to cloud on-ramps, enabling customers to directly connect to cloud service providers such as Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud.
American Tower notes that the strength of these metro edge facilities are their size and power capacity. At the same time, the weaknesses of metro edge data centers, being significant network transit costs and higher latency, have not been as relevant to-date. However, this notion is beginning to change as transit costs and low-latency become more important features.
The central locations of metro edge data centers cause data to often travel hundreds of miles to reach these destinations, which increases network transit costs and produces higher latency. Ultimately, as low-latency applications advance, such as the uplink of data from Internet of Things (IoT) devices, the network will require more edge locations.
Beyond the metro edge, the next layer is the aggregation edge. At this layer, C-RAN (centralized-RAN) hubs bring mobility and applications closer to the edge of wireless carrier networks. In turn, this allows for low-latency functions such as network virtualization, distributed data processing, and artificial intelligence (AI) inferencing.
Presently, the major cloud service providers are building-out their edge cloud platforms (e.g., Azure Edge Zones). These enable computing capabilities to be extended deeper into the mobile access network, which resides at the aggregation edge.
Beyond the aggregation edge, the next layer is the access edge. At this layer, American Tower’s global portfolio of tower sites become particularly relevant. Indeed, this layer is where the company’s smaller edge data centers are deployed at the base of its cellular towers.
Ultimately, American Tower expects vRAN (virtual radio access network) and O-RAN (open radio access network) functions, artificial intelligence (AI) inferencing, and data caching to occur at these edge facilities. Additionally, augmented reality (AR) & virtual reality (VR), cloud-native, ultra-low-latency applications will exist at these locations.
Beyond the access edge, the final layer is the on-premises edge, which is situated beyond American Tower’s sites. At this layer, on-premises edge computing will support use cases including private networks and smart factories.
American Tower – Edge Computing Progress
While each of the metro edge, aggregation edge, access edge, and on-premises edge will co-exist to enable full-scale 5G across the network ecosystem, American Tower is being selective as to where it participates.
Access Edge – Edge Data Centers
American Tower owns 6 edge data centers across the United States, which reside at the access edge. Each facility comprises ~360 sqft and houses 20+ customer cabinets per location. Check-out Dgtl Infra’s prior overview for the locations of American Tower’s 6 edge data centers.
Metro Edge – Metro Data Centers
American Tower owns 3 metro data centers in the Southeastern U.S.; two in Atlanta, Georgia and one in Orlando, Florida. Most recently, the company significantly upped its metro edge presence with the acquisition of DataSite in October 2021.
American Tower acquired DataSite, an owner and operator of two multi-tenant data centers in Atlanta and Orlando for $201m. In aggregate, these facilities have 18 megawatts of combined power, as well as an additional 4.5 megawatts of expansion capacity.
American Tower’s expanding metro edge presence enhances its ability to develop neutral-host, multi-tenant, multi-cloud data centers. In turn, these facilities will support the broader core to edge connectivity evolution.
American Tower concedes that a scaled, application-driven edge business model is still several years away. However, the future total addressable market for edge computing represents a meaningful opportunity – both in the United States and globally.
With its 219k communications sites distributed globally, American Tower could ultimately become a provider of edge solutions. Particularly, the company could serve large multi-national wireless carriers and enterprises. To this end, American Tower recently formed partnerships with brokers Global Telecom Solutions (GTS) and COLOTRAQ. These agreements show the company’s intent to bring more tenants to its edge and metro data centers in the U.S.