As the wireless industry debates the potential revenue opportunities for edge computing, there’s another wrinkle that those in the sector must contemplate: obtaining permits for the physical space that the edge data centers will require.
"The thing about edge computing is, we expect the [cell] towers are already being used as a site for edge data centers. They’ve already got the fiber, they’ve got the power, they’ve got the space,” explained Jonathan Adelstein, CEO of the Wireless Infrastructure Association (WIA), the trade organization representing tower companies and other wireless network deployment players. “But we have an issue where, if we try to expand the [cell tower] compound to accommodate edge computing equipment, we have to go through an elaborate and very slow approval process."
Adelstein explained that many of the industry’s current tower sites were initially developed for a set amount of equipment, and have since accumulated new equipment for newer wireless spectrum bands and technologies that leaves little space for edge computing data centers.
"The compounds are getting filled up with all this equipment for advanced 4G and for 5G,” he said, explaining that in some cases it can take a year or longer to receive regulator approval to expand cell tower sites to accommodate additional equipment. “We’d like to see that process streamlined. … We'd like to get started now so when we see a vast expansion of edge data computing we're not going to be slowed down by this issue."
Adelstein isn’t alone on the issue.
“Yes, the permitting process for edge implementations can be lengthy—taking a year or more in some cases—but that same process might be faster for a routine site in a different city. That is because of how varied and ambiguous the permitting process can be for any site, let alone an edge site. Even when everything lines up to make a project a slam dunk permitting-wise, the ‘rubber stamps’ that are required from local authorities can still take 2-4 weeks for zoning alone. And for sites where more steps are required—such as presenting a development plan modification, participating in public zoning hearings, formally requesting zoning exceptions and the like—the process can easily stretch on for months and months, even though the project may be identical in design and specs to the example above that was rubber stamped. It all depends on location,” noted Loren Zweig, VP of operations for edge computing startup EdgeMicro. The company in March named thirty cities where it hopes to install its micro edge computing facilities, mostly at the base of cell towers, as well as an unnamed North American mobile network operator that is testing its units. In May, EdgeMicro said it completed a $3 million round of seed funding.
“The key thing to understand is that there are variations in zoning within a municipality—even within a metro area—and that no two edge projects may be alike in terms of permitting. That makes edge deployments at scale a major challenge for companies unless they have a strategy that streamlines that process. One of the key ways to streamline that timeline is to work with someone who understands the local market and has already done the six months of pre-work to select sites with the right location, fiber access, power availability, zoning, building permit requirements, etc. That allows you to leapfrog over the frustration, delays and dead ends that so often slow down these projects.”
Of course, edge computing isn’t the only trend in the wireless industry facing issues with regulators and permits. For example, the wireless industry in general has made a major push to streamline the regulatory situation around the deployment of new network densification technologies like small cells.