AT&T and Microsoft Team Up on Azure Services Using 5G and Edge Computing

Microsoft and AT&T offered an update on their 5G partnership late last month with the aim of using edge computing capabilities to "drive enterprise capabilities" for businesses around the world.

The partnership is centered on the greater promised data capacities offered by the nascent 5G wireless networks that are still getting constructed. These emerging 5G networks, when launched, are said to light up higher bandwidth for mobile applications, enabled partly via localized processing called "edge computing."

To that end, Microsoft and AT&T announced a preview of their Network Edge Compute (NEC) technology. NEC combines AT&T's software-defined networking and "virtualized 5G core" technologies (known as the AT&T "Network Cloud") with Microsoft's Azure cloud services. The NEC technology helps AT&T's Network Cloud in delivering Azure services to customers. AT&T plans to preview NEC first in Dallas for "select customers," but an expansion of the preview is planned in 2020 for Atlanta and Los Angeles.

Microsoft is also helping to move AT&T's non-network traffic over to Azure infrastructure, with a completion milestone sometime in 2024. Additionally, AT&T plans to use various Microsoft 365 services, including Office, SharePoint, OneDrive and Teams. Microsoft had highlighted those migration efforts back in July.

Future Efforts
The two companies see scenarios opening up for consumers and businesses with 5G and edge computing.

"With our 5G and edge computing, AT&T is collaborating uniquely with Microsoft to marry their cloud capabilities with our network to create lower latency between the device and the cloud that will unlock new, future scenarios for consumers and businesses," said Mo Katibeh, executive vice president and chief marketing officer for AT&T Business, in a prepared statement.

Those future scenarios include things like self-tracking drones, the use of augmented reality "glasses," and "autonomous cars," according to the announcement. Proof-of-concept projects currently exist for things like drone tracking near airports and the use of Microsoft's HoloLens augmented reality headsets for equipment repairs.

In May, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella had highlighted an effort with AT&T to use its 5G network with Azure Stack for handling edge computing tasks, including drone airspace tracking. Azure Stack is Microsoft's datacenter-in-a-box hardware appliance, built with partners, that lets organizations tap Azure services on their own infrastructure.

AT&T's 5G Network Rollout
AT&T is forecasting that its nationwide 5G service will launch in "the first half of 2020." 5G coverage for 15 U.S. cities can be seen in AT&T's network maps (PDF download).

The initial 5G service rollout will use AT&T's so-called "low-band spectrum" (less than 6 GHz frequency band), which is called "5G Evolution" by AT&T because it uses enhanced 4G LTE technology that can be software upgraded to 5G. The range of the 5G Evolution wireless network is about two miles. Parts of AT&T's network likely will continue to use 4G LTE wireless technology in the near future, though, AT&T admitted in a FAQ.

Another higher bandwidth service, AT&T's "5G+" service, uses millimeter-wave spectrum (typically in the 26 to 28 GHz frequency band). The 5G+ service is conceived for use by stadiums, college campuses and urban areas. It has a shorter range of about 1,000 feet. The 5G+ service is currently offered in 21 cities, but is planned for expansion to 30 cities in "early 2020," per a November AT&T announcement.

5G Spectrum and Prospects
The mobile industries' plans envision tapping various wireless frequency bands to support 5G, although the 3.3 GHz to 3.8 GHz band typically will "form the basis of many initial 5G services," according to a position paper (PDF download) by GSMA, a mobile operator lobbying group. The group wants governments to set aside certain frequency bands for the purpose. The GSMA contends that 5G will "meet evolving consumer mobile demands" and it will "transform industry vertical sectors."

Analyst group IDC foresees 5G as ending a three-year slump in global smartphone shipments as new phones will be needed. This 5G boost is expected to occur most aggressively in China, which will take the lead in 2020, per IDC's November announcement.

Apparently, 4G technology is still good enough for most consumer users, though. In 2020, Forrester Research predicts that 5G will mostly just be an industry concern.

"Yes, it [5G] will matter for industrial players, but to consumers, 5G in 2020 will feel like 3G in 2004 or 4G in 2010; even urban areas in early-5G-rollout countries such as Finland, Sweden, and Switzerland will get an undifferentiated experience," predicted Thomas Husson, Forrester vice president and principal analyst, in a December blog post.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for 1105 Media's Converge360 group.