Airtel and IBM Bring Complementary Assets to Deliver 5G-Capable Edge Computing

S. Soh

Summary Bullets:

• IBM and Bharti Airtel announced their intent to deploy Airtel’s edge computing platform in India, which will include 120 network data centers across 20 cities.

• This is a positive development for both firms, but there is still work to be done in educating the market, co-developing solutions with customers, and expanding the partner ecosystem.

Airtel’s edge computing platform delivers a hybrid environment based on IBM Cloud Satellite and Red Hat OpenShift; the business value is significantly enhanced when combined with 5G. Maruti Suzuki India intends to use the edge platform to increase accuracy and efficiency for quality inspections on the factory floor. Through Airtel’s 5G connectivity and IBM’s secured edge computing, enterprises can deploy and manage workloads in near real-time.

The partnership between IBM and Bharti Airtel is a positive move because it gives Airtel a head start in combining 5G with MEC to offer a unique solution for enterprise customers. Airtel has a stronger enterprise focus than its mobile rivals Reliance Jio and Vodafone Idea, and its new edge computing solution allows the company to build deeper relationships with customers. As the Maruti Suzuki example illustrates, this is not just moving IT to the cloud, but this enables new business use cases extending into manufacturing processes and quality inspection. This is a positive development for IBM since it has been working with telcos in different countries, and this announcement helps to strengthen the company’s position in this field. While some telcos have deployed MEC in conjunction with 5G (e.g., AWS Wavelength Zones in Tokyo and Osaka [Japan] with KDDI and Microsoft Azure Stack Edge with Telstra), Airtel’s commitment to the IBM edge computing platform is more substantial, covering 120 data centers (under Nxtra) across 20 cities.

Monetization of 5G has been a main focus for telcos. It is therefore important for Airtel to develop 5G-enabled solutions to create a new source of revenue as well as to become more relevant to enterprise customers. Being a tier-1 local telco, Airtel can position its edge computing platform as a secure cloud solution addressing customers with data sovereignty requirements, including financial services, healthcare, and government. This is timely since enterprises are accelerating their digital transformation and moving more workloads to the cloud. To meet the requirements for different business applications, cloud providers are supporting distributed cloud architecture and moving cloud computing closer to customers. The telco network edge is an attractive option, especially with 5G ultra-low latency connectivity and private environment (dedicated or network slicing). Hyperscalers have been working with telcos to implement MEC, and it is important for IBM to showcase more customers using its IBM Cloud Satellite as part of their 5G/MEC strategy. By building on Red Hat’s relationship with other telcos in the region, IBM has the opportunity to extend the same solution in other markets.

However, like many telcos that have deployed 5G and MEC, adoption is often slow after the initial launch. Enterprises will need to work with technology partners who understand their business needs, can bring in a wider set of partners for different requirements (e.g., data analytics, industrial hardware, industry-specific software, etc.), and able to deliver professional services (e.g., system integration and consulting services). Airtel is addressing these challenges by tapping into IBM Consulting capabilities and leveraging its technologies (e.g., IBM Maximo for Visual Inspection). The company, however, needs to establish a wider partner ecosystem to solve a diverse range of business challenges. This should include system integrators and consulting firms that are targeting specific industries and are helping customers transform their business operations. Since many use cases are industry-specific, it is crucial to work with service providers that understand the imperatives of key industries and have the technology ecosystem to support the transformation of both IT and OT.

In addition, Airtel is just about to start offering 5G, and it will take time to educate the market the benefits of 5G beyond faster speeds for their handheld devices. Airtel will start with a non-standalone network, which will have considerable limitations compared to a standalone network, especially in delivering dynamic network slicing capabilities. It is useful for Airtel to communicate its vision for 5G network slicing, which can help customers and partners work through their technology roadmap. The market in India is also very price-sensitive, and the overall cost of implementation has to match the market expectation for more widespread adoption.

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