Crown Castle operates 40.1k towers, 80k route miles of fiber supporting more than 70k small cells. The company’s infrastructure is new 5G network architectures across the United States.

Edge Computing – Network Architecture

In June 2017, Crown Castle took their first step in building-out an edge compute business by purchasing a stake in Vapor IO, an edge computing business based in Austin, Texas. The company builds 150 kW edge data center sites. Vapor IO is focused on edge computing and providing the ability to put small-scale data centers, at the very edge of the network, meaning at tower sites.

Edge computing represents a significant opportunity for Crown Castle to affect 5G network architecture. Specifically, edge computing can manage data traffic and reduce the cost to move or “transport” that data traffic. Edge computing is becoming increasingly relevant as data traffic and demand for interconnection grows. Further, users increasingly want to connect at the very edge of the network.

In a 5G environment, there is a requirement to have ubiquitous high-speed, low-latency network connectivity. Edge compute, delivered by Crown Castle, is an example of the new network architecture that can deliver these 5G requirements. Edge computing will bring storage, computing power and interconnection close to where users reside, in order to reduce latency. Effectively, this will increase the ability to transmit data back-and-forth, coming from devices to the network and from the network to devices.

Vapor IO – Defining Crown Castle’s Network Architecture

Crown Castle’s investment in Vapor IO allows Crown Castle to be involved in edge computing business discussions in a very meaningful way. By being involved, Crown Castle can drive a lot of the edge computing demand both to Vapor IO and to Crown Castle’s tower sites. This makes logical sense given the edge of the wired network is the tower site. In combination, Crown Castle and Vapor IO consider themselves at the edge, which is the point where the “wired” network becomes the “wireless” network.

Crown Castle’s tower sites are well positioned to capture the edge computing opportunity. From a real estate perspective, the tower sites provide power, fiber, security, and a location for equipment to be placed. Further, the base of towers are locations where edge colocation facilities can be built at the edge of the network.

Through Vapor IO, Crown Castle owns the passive infrastructure (i.e., the edge data center itself). Crown Castle then allows tenants to colocate their electronics (i.e., the active infrastructure) within the data center facility. A significant amount of the overall wireless traffic travels through towers. Therefore, it makes logical sense to place these data center facilities at the edge of the network. In turn, the edge of the network rationally becomes the base of Crown Castle’s tower sites.

Additionally, Crown Castle offers a unique value proposition because the company provides the entire suite of digital infrastructure including the tower, fiber connectivity and small cells. Being able to provide a comprehensive solution of digital infrastructure, enables the company to act as an ecosystem to facilitate low latency. Because of its offering, Crown Castle is differentiated from many of its competitors that either only offer edge computing, only have towers, or only own fiber and small cells.

Autonomous Vehicles Use Case – Applicability to Edge Computing

Autonomous vehicles are a relevant 5G use case which will benefit from edge computing. Data consumption by an autonomous vehicle is massive. This is because the vehicle is constantly processing its on-board mapping data and sending that information back-and-forth to the cloud. This information exchange ensures the map has not changed (e.g., debris on the road or a road closure). However, the majority of the time, the vehicle’s map has not changed and thus the autonomous vehicle does not need to update its on-board maps in real-time. Therefore, sending mapping information back to a cloud data center, in Northern Virginia (a key data center hub), does not make sense. This is because most of the data is unnecessary, as it has not changed.

By using edge compute in the 5G network architecture, autonomous vehicles could filter out data that has not changed at an edge location. In turn, the autonomous vehicle would only send back to the cloud the data that needs to be analyzed. This cloud-bound data can then update the system. By having this intermediate, edge computing step, it allows 5G networks to operate much more efficiently. Significant volumes of data will need to be processed for autonomous vehicles. Thus, edge computing will be an absolute necessity in the future.

In summary, innovative use cases like autonomous vehicles will require changes to network architectures. Edge computing is a change to the network architecture that will help support autonomous vehicles. Finally, Crown Castle provides the edge computing solutions so that the network architecture is able to change.

C-RAN – Network Architecture

Historically, there has been very distinct pockets of towers and fiber activity. However, as carriers continue to deploy 5G, they will move their network architectures towards C-RAN (known as cloud-RAN or centralized-RAN). C-RAN architecture uses fiber to connect base station equipment to remote radio heads and antennas on towers. Therefore, 5G will bring a convergence of both tower and fiber infrastructure in the network. C-RAN will allow carriers to run their networks more efficiently than what they have historically done.

Adam Simmons is the Founder & CEO of Dgtl Infra. He started his career with an S&P 500-listed big box retailer, in an operations management role. Adam's entrepreneurial "itch" led him to start a 5G-driven company, focused on innovative retail solutions using augmented reality and shoppable videos, which was eventually sold to an advertising and consulting group. After, realizing the potential of 5G, Adam shifted his efforts towards investing in the "building blocks" of 5G - known as digital infrastructure, completing a number of strategic investments, buying cellular towers, data centers and fiber networks.

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