AT&T teams with Microsoft to gain private 5G edge

US operator collaborates with cloud giant to integrate 5G network with Azure private mobile edge computing and builds on existing edge work between the two companies

As private 5G networks proliferate across the world, leading US comms provider AT&T has entered into a partnership with Microsoft with the aim of making private 5G networks smarter, simpler, and more flexible for businesses.

The operator said it was continuing its leadership in deploying private cellular networks for businesses, universities and the public sector, and the needs and demands of its customers were evolving, so it needed to upgrade with them.

AT&T said it was now looking to bring private 4G/5G wireless networks as an integrated platform with connectivity and applications to enable low-latency services at the edge. It was also including the valuable ability to roam beyond the geographical boundaries of the AT&T private network and still stay connected through its public network, under the banner of the AT&T Private 5G Edge.

Currently under development with Microsoft, the service uses Azure private MEC to help deploy these private wireless networks rapidly across radio spectrums, including Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS). AT&T Private 5G Edge is designed to be an integrated platform, providing connectivity and embedded applications through a single platform with the use of CBRS spectrum and/or AT&T spectrum, where needed, to meet customer requirements.

The company said it was looking to provide high-end computing and graphical processing power with the 5G network through a self-install capability.

AT&T is pitching its Private 5G Edge as being “ideal” for companies and organisations where private networks need to be simple, flexible and easy to use. However, AT&T acknowledged that it knew businesses were still learning what these new technologies are, how they can help their operations and what it takes to get them up and running.

To that end, for the new Private 5G Edge, it said it was working closely with customers to understand their needs, challenges and aspirations when it came to private cellular networks and edge computing.

AT&T also stressed that it was aiming to make it simpler and faster for organisations of all shapes and sizes to get their private edge networks up and running, with reach that extends across the US. A feature it is working on for AT&T Private 5G Edge is the ability to roam off these private networks but still stay connected via a public mobile network.

In a potential use case, AT&T suggested that a hospital might use its private network to precisely track ventilators, wheelchairs and other critical items in its building, but if a ventilator is loaned to another hospital, the network’s roaming capability could ensure that machine always remains accounted for, even outside the private network.

Looking at verticals, AT&T said it was talking to customers in different markets to figure out how this technology can best be applied. The fundamental belief is that with Private 5G Edge, moving from Wi-Fi to dedicated and secure 5G connections with edge computing capabilities opens possibilities in retail stores, manufacturing plants, restaurants, schools, and more. 

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In manufacturing, cameras and artificial intelligence (AI) tools could assist in robotic assembly and “event detection”, such as when a worker has been injured or a fire has started and then alert first responders or activate fire suppression systems almost instantly. Also, a car manufacturer could create a dedicated cellular network within a dealership to help buyers manage the setup process for vehicle diagnostics and other connected features, rather than tying up the dealership's Wi-Fi network.

AT&T also proposed a scenario in a clinic where video sensors with embedded AI could be quickly deployed at pop-up locations to monitor patients for fevers, just based on their appearance without requiring a staff member to test them manually.

This new service complements Azure Edge Zones, which AT&T created with Microsoft and which is based on AT&T Network Edge. The two firms say that together, Azure Edge Zones with AT&T and AT&T Private 5G Edge form a foundation on which businesses and other customers can test, build and deploy the next generation of 5G apps and services through public and private mobile networks.

“With AT&T Private 5G Edge, we are enabling customers to create and deliver innovation faster – with simplicity, flexibility, security and high-speed wireless connectivity,” said Rupesh Chokshi, vice-president product strategy and innovation at AT&T Business. “This solution opens the door to entirely new applications and use cases we haven’t even imagined yet.

“The combination of 5G and edge compute can utterly transform how businesses are run, no matter the size, and we are proactively engaging with those businesses to identify the right compelling opportunities. Our collaboration with Microsoft is exciting because it combines technology with an adaptable business model and brings innovation to life – for any customer.”

A first potential user of the system is the Rellis Campus at the Texas A&M University System. “Since the Rellis 5G project has kicked off, we have received requests from all 11 universities within the Texas A&M University System asking us how they too can have a 5G network for their own 5G testbeds,” said Bradley Hoover, chief information officer.

“The existing solutions have been too large of scale and too complex to even consider deploying broadly. AT&T Private 5G Edge would give us a scalable solution, whether we need a quick setup for a mobile command centre, internet-of-things sensor backhaul, or even an XR testbed. This could help prepare students for future careers ranging from programming interactive virtual reality, to building AI robotic devices, to designing new types of wearable tech.”

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