“What’s the 5G killer app?”

That might be the question I get more than any other in my job.

With 3G, it was messaging and web browsing.

With 4G, it was video and location services.

But with 5G, my answer is “too many to list”.

There won’t be a single category that defines the value of 5G. Instead, I think there will be a range of new capabilities that are hugely valuable for consumers and businesses. And often, when you read about 5G, it tends to skew to either smartphones or large enterprise businesses. Sure – they’ll benefit from 5G, and we’re already seeing this today. But so too will small and mid-sized businesses. From cars to video games to healthcare to augmented reality to manufacturing and more, 5G has the potential to empower a range of “killer apps or services” for almost everyone.

To fulfill that promise, 5G was designed and is now being deployed in a much different manner than previous wireless generations. In short, we’re moving network services much closer to our users.

If you can reduce the geographic distance between the user and the online service or data they’re accessing, response time or “latency” speeds up. That makes existing applications feel much smoother. And new possibilities emerge for cutting edge mobile applications that previously weren’t possible.

Imagine a connected car, or even someday soon a fully autonomous car, on a 5G network where the 5G standalone network core is in the same city or region. That reduced latency means cameras, radars, and other sensors on that car can scan the environment and send the data across a localized network to be analyzed and responded to in near real time.  Of course, for that to work seamlessly, the cloud services that do that analysis also have to be located in the same region. And modern software-defined network services are needed to optimize all that data movement.

That’s exactly the model we’re building based on those three key elements:

  • Local standalone network cores
  • Local public cloud or private data center computing resources
  • Software-defined network capabilities and virtualized network functions

We call these localized 5G network capabilities “edge zones”, and today we have 10 of them up and running across the U.S., with a goal of getting to an even dozen by the end of 2022. Many more will follow in 2023 and beyond.

Our standalone network cores and software defined network capabilities will be located in network data centers close to cross connect facilities that have fast connections to nearby cloud facilities run by the “hyperscaler” cloud providers.

These edge zones powered by regional 5G standalone network cores will open a range of new capabilities that simply aren’t possible with 4G. And much like startups that played an integral role in developing new experiences and services because of 4G, we believe that giving them localized, hands-on access to our 5G network will be a foundational building block for tomorrow’s inventors. Of course, we’ve done a good amount of work with startups over the years, and we’re excited about what this approach to 5G can do for them.

For example, we’ll be able to provide new managed services over our 5G network to customers that need customized capabilities for particular uses and applications. Similar to a virtual private network and consistent with open internet principles, this will ensure users have the network resources they need for mission-critical applications. This will help support, for example, autonomous vehicles (which need low-latency connections) alongside kids in the backseat streaming video (which has less of a need for quick response time.)

This is similar to how we manage and support the FirstNet network for first responders, providing them with customized connectivity to respond to disaster situations and other public emergencies. Applying lessons learned by operating FirstNet over the last several years has given us a unique perspective on how to bring similar capabilities to our commercial network.

As we build out and activate more edge zones, we’ll explore different options for how we make them accessible to developers, either through the hyperscalers’ app stores and other interfaces or through software development kits (SDKs).

There will be lots more to come in this space over the coming months and years.

It’s an exciting time for us. We’re at the dawn of a new age of killer apps almost everywhere you look.

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Jeremy Legg
Jeremy Legg Chief Technology Officer, AT&T

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