American Tower officially launched its American Tower Edge Data Center initiative this year, and it already has deployed six edge data centers in Denver and Boulder, Colorado; Pittsburgh; Atlanta; Jacksonville, Florida; and Austin, Texas.
American Tower is using the ground space at its existing tower locations where it already has connectivity and electrical power. The company has more than 181,000 cell tower sites worldwide, and 40,000 of those sites are in the United States.
Its goal is to offer customers the opportunity to use a number of edge data centers and then “aggregate them back to some regional data center,” said Eric Watko, American Tower's VP of innovation product line management.
In its first phase, American Tower is not touting any benefits related to its towers’ wireless tenants. Instead, it’s simply using its real estate, electricity, security and dark fiber assets to help enterprises build distributed data centers.
Watko said one of the first steps was for American Tower to identify good tower sites for its edge data centers. He said cell towers are situated on myriad types of plots, and not all of them are suitable for deploying a new mini data center. “That has been one of the variables we have to take into account,” he said. “They have different sizes and powers. We have a filtering system with our GIS team to determine which ones are prime candidates.”
But the tower sites are already great for security. They’re enclosed by fences with keycard access and other barriers, and they have security cameras. The data center industry complies with security operation center (SOC) rules. And American Tower’s edge data centers will follow those same compliance standards.
“From a physical security perspective, it will look and feel like you’re going into a large data center,” said Watko.
Edge data center customers
The company’s first tenants are mainly IT companies and managed service providers that want to deliver applications closer to their enterprise customers without having to send data back and forth from a large, far-away data center. “They’re taking these enterprise services that could be IT applications that do booking and billing — those kinds of IT services that you have a third-party manage on your behalf. They want to deliver those closer to their offices,” said Watko.
American Tower is finding these initial customers through digital marketplaces, and it’s also working with some sales channel partners. “In towers, you’re very much direct,” he said. “Here, it’s more indirect; you publish on these marketplaces, build a pool of sales agents. It is very regionalized right now.”
American Tower has also partnered with the data center company Flexential, which will be re-selling its edge data center inventory.
For connectivity, most of American Tower’s initial customers are using its dark fiber to run transport connections from their own existing service providers.
Phase Two plans
“The edge data center is not using capabilities from the tower other than the co-located piece of property,” said Watko. “That’s our first wave.”
In phase two of its plans, American Tower intends to leverage the relationships it has with the carriers that use its towers. “As the carriers start to move more services to the edge because of 5G, that’s where we envision they will have space at the edge data center connected to the tower, and that’s where the two worlds start to come together,” said Watko. “You’ll have an enterprise and an MNO co-located.”
Last year, American Tower acquired the Atlanta-based ColoATL data center. It was the company’s first acquisition in the data center market. It said it acquired ColoATL to learn more about how data centers operate and how enterprises cross-connect in the data center.
Now, its Atlanta Edge Data Center connects dark fiber with its nearby ColoATL facility.
“When the American Tower US Innovation team wanted to understand the data center business, we bought ColoATL, which was a mature regional data center business in Atlanta,” said Watko. “In parallel we identified multiple sites to develop and deploy our edge data center. From the learnings at ColoATL we’ll take those best practices and apply to our edge data center business."
American Tower isn’t the only tower company getting into the edge compute business. Crown Castle has a minority investment in Vapor IO, a company that is building out its Kinetic Edge platform in 36 markets by the end of 2021.
And SBA Communications has a product called SBA Edge.