• As BT’s edge strategy evolves, gaming emerges as potential use-case.
  • BT’s Neil McRae shares latest thinking about edge business cases.
  • Consumer edge applications more advanced than enterprise services.

BT explores edge to “level up” latency for UK gamers

BT explores edge to “level up” latency for UK gamers

Source: Florian Olivo / Unsplash

BT is exploring how edge computing can “level up” gaming experiences for UK consumers across the country by reducing network latency, as part of its work with the University of Warwick and Warwickshire County Council.

The amount of network latency or “ping time” — that is, the time it takes for a command to go from a user’s game controller to the game server — increases the further from London that people are located. ISPs connect to the internet in London, at the UK’s internet peering point, and the longer the distance data travels to reach customers, the longer the latency times.

For online, multiplayer gamers, ping time is one of the most important factors that can impede their moves in games. Other network factors that affect game performance are speed, jitter, and packet loss.

Speaking during a recent webinar hosted by BT, Warwick University and Warwickshire County Council, Tim Rawling, Principal Technology Partner in the BT Consumer CTIO office, cited Facebook analytics data that showed how ping times to Facebook servers varied across the UK, and that 186 miles equated to one millisecond of latency.

Regions such as Northern Ireland and Scotland, furthest from London, had the longest latency times. “If you’re in Glasgow, there’s a big lag”, he said.

BT says edge computing in its mobile and fixed networks could reduce latency for customers in those regions, particularly for gamers. “If we can take game servers and content and put them into the network closer to the customer, then it’s an opportunity for those gamers in Scotland and Northern Ireland to get a similar experience to gamers from southeast”, said Rawling.

He described the use of edge computing as a “levelling up exercise” in the country. He explained that since the UK is a “relatively small country”, the latency differences are not as great as they would be in larger countries like the USA, “but marginal gains matter”.

BT launched a public 5G network on Warwick University’s campus in mid-November 2020, enabling EE to provide 5G services across the 720-acre site. The network will also support the university’s Creative & Digital Communities initiative and plans to develop 5G use-cases (BTwatch, #318). Rawling’s presentation was part of the initiative’s outreach programme to creative businesses in the region, to show how they can benefit from new network capabilities including 5G and edge computing.

Edge strategy evolves

Gaming is one of many use-cases that BT is considering for edge computing across consumer and enterprise applications (BTwatch, #303, #304, #311, and #313). Based on recent comments from Neil McRae, Chief Architect at BT, the operator’s edge strategy is in flux, but the case for edge computing to support consumer services seems more advanced — and based more heavily on cost reduction — than in the enterprise market.

During TelecomTV’s recent Edgenomics virtual event, McRae said that “edge is a new thing. We’re not certain what it’s going to do, we’re not certain the shape it’s going to be. So, we’re really looking at this with flexibility in mind”.

McRae’s comments indicate that BT is looking at edge computing not just for cost reduction but also for generating new service revenue. While he stressed that costs and return on investment were critical, he said that it is also important to consider “what this capability gives us that we didn’t have before”, and “what more can I build on” to it. “The flexibility of that model over the next six months, twelve months, two years is probably going to change as we understand what use-cases and what different… platforms that we can build that leverage edge”, he said.

From a cost perspective, McRae said edge technology will have the biggest impact initially on bringing down the cost of delivering BT’s content services, such as BT Sport programming. He described “edge content delivery networks (CDN)” as always being an “anchor tenant” for the edge business case. “Today, we’re delivering that closer to the customer. Tomorrow, I think with 4K and potentially 8K, [high dynamic range (HDR)], 3D content, virtual reality video, we’re going to have to move that closer and closer to the edge”, he said.

One of BT’s recent edge moves was the deployment of an Open Caching edge content delivery service, developed by Cisco Systems, Qwilt, and Digital Alpha, to improve video streaming quality (BTwatch, #317). With this service, the operator claimed to have gained the UK’s first 5G multi-access edge computing (MEC) capability.

When it comes to the revenue growth part of the business case for edge computing, McRae said BT wants to become a “platform business in areas like healthcare”. BT has pursued 5G with edge compute for healthcare and emergency response initiatives, as well as private 5G networks with an edge compute component for factory automation (BTwatch, #311, #313, and #315).

But the enterprise use-cases are taking more time to nail down because enterprises do not fully understand what operators can deliver, while BT does not intuitively know enterprise requirements — which is why the telco has been working with various enterprise customers and partners over the last two years to collaborate and “co-innovate”, according to McRae. “It’s a much closer engagement with the customer”, he said. “You have to engage with those experts to figure out where the big prizes are, but what I can say is, there are big prizes”.