Operators like AT&T admit they’re still learning the needs of customers when it comes to private 5G edge, but one thing they’re pretty sure of: Private networks need to be simple, flexible and easy to use.

Toward that end, AT&T used the Mobile World Congress 2022 event in Barcelona to announce that it’s working with Microsoft to integrate AT&T 5G Network with Azure private MEC, building on their existing work together in the edge space. They want to include the ability to roam beyond the geographical boundaries of the private network and stay connected on the AT&T public network. 

It’s still in the beta/proof of concept stage, so it’s not commercially available yet.

While it’s being designed, AT&T wants to make its Private 5G Edge a simple, integrated solution to help businesses, universities and others get up and running quickly, according to Rupesh Chokshi, vice president product strategy and innovation at AT&T Business. The inclusion of Microsoft Azure private MEC ideally will enable faster deployment of applications and tools, making it easier for customers to run their businesses, he told Fierce.  

“As a private 5G solution our goal is to deliver greater security, higher bandwidth, and better coverage than Wi-Fi, and more flexibility than in-building wired solutions,” he said via email.

Right now, they have products for large-scale deployments but they need products that can scale down to serve smaller businesses or businesses with smaller footprints, he said.

“This will expand our portfolio that includes MEC and PCN in the current offering to these businesses, while helping us build capabilities that we will need to serve mid-market customers with any product (self-service ordering and installation, automated deployment, packaging/miniaturizing products into repeatable offerings),” he said. “Our aspiration is to make it as simple to order AT&T Private 5G Edge as it is to order a new phone.”

Private, public roaming
One of the ways they’re making it more useable is the ability to roam between AT&T’s private and public networks. For example, a hospital might use its private network to track ventilators, wheelchairs and other items in a building. If a ventilator gets loaned to another hospital, the roaming capability could ensure that machine is always accounted for, even outside the private network.

AT&T is using CBRS spectrum, as well as its own licensed spectrum, to meet customer requirements. According to a press release, they’re looking to provide high-end computing and graphical processing power with the 5G network through a self-install model.

Roaming between networks brings up another question: Will they want roaming with other carriers? Chokshi said that creating roaming agreements with other carriers for private networks is a possibility if the demand develops. 

As for rural areas, they believe there’s a huge demand there. Oil drillers, for example, in extremely remote regions could use a private network running on CBRS to enable on-premise, low-latency edge services they otherwise wouldn’t have access to. That could either be a self-contained CBRS-based private network, or potentially have connectivity back to the public network either via a roaming agreement with another carrier or through AT&T’s commercial network if it’s available in that area, according to Chokshi.

“Overall, we think AT&T Private 5G Edge will be appealing to midsize companies with small facilities or to larger companies that have a large, distributed footprint (such as a retailer with locations across a region or across the country), or a university with multiple campuses,” such as Texas A&M, he said.

Big picture 

The big picture is they’re moving computing to the edge, using 5G to reduce latency, and there’s a lot of use cases for that, noted Bill Ho, principal analyst at 556 Ventures.

A couple of the use cases that AT&T mentioned are 1) manufacturing, where cameras and AI tools can assist in everything from robotic assembly to detecting when a worker has been injured; and 2) a car dealership, where a car manufacturer can create a dedicated cellular network within a dealership to help buyers manage the set-up process for vehicle diagnostics rather than tying up the venue’s Wi-Fi network.

Although rival T-Mobile has designs on doubling its market share in the enterprise space within five years, right now AT&T and Verizon are the two biggest wireless entities serving enterprises in the U.S. “They want to keep that base,” Ho said.

“Enterprise 5G private network adoption, as all carriers have discussed in the run up to 5G going live, has been a growth area,” Ho said. “In order to do this, they have to put the pieces in place to have a set of 5G private network services.”

That’s what AT&T is doing now. AT&T said it will “share more details” later this year in terms of when AT&T Private 5G Edge will launch. Until then, customers and developers can request to participate in the preview phase.

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