Cell tower Darren McCollester/Getty Images

DataBank Plans Wireless Tower Data Center Services for Edge Computing

Teams up with sister company Vertical Bridge to help content and cloud players extend their networks closer to users

Another wireless-infrastructure heavyweight is getting into the new business of selling data center space at the bases of cell towers to help companies shrink the distance data has to travel between mobile devices and the networks of online video, voice, data, and cloud service providers.

Vertical Bridge, one of the largest wireless network infrastructure operators in the US, is partnering with its sister company DataBank, a Dallas-based data center provider, to develop what they describe as micro data centers to host edge computing capacity at tower locations. Both companies are owned by Digital Bridge, the Boca Raton, Florida-based roll-up of companies that own and operate physical internet infrastructure assets.

“In addition to improving distribution for content providers and carriers, edge computing can also create an important distribution point for the cloud at a lower cost,” DataBank CEO Raul Martynek said in a statement. “There’s just one jump to the micro data center at the base of the towers, so not only is the latency for accessing the cloud reduced, but it opens the possibility for real-time applications and a richer, more immersive experience for end users.”

While it’s not the largest wireless tower company in the US, Vertical Bridge is among the largest ones if you take into account all types of locations it controls, including wireless and broadcast towers, leased rooftop and land assets, and billboards. Taken together, that’s about 55,000 locations around the US.

The largest tower company is Crown Castle, which manages about 40,000 towers and rooftop installations, according to its website, in addition to 25,000 small-cell nodes (relatively low-range cell radio access nodes), and 2,500 wireless access points. Crown Castle is the largest in the country by tower count alone, according to Wireless Estimator, which tracks the industry.

And Crown Castle has a similar edge computing-at-cell tower play, which it announced earlier this year. Together with the Austin-based data center technology startup Vapor IO, Crown Castle is offering clients data center space at tower sites, inside Vapor’s unique high-density data center pods, supported by the startup’s portfolio of data center management software.

Packaging its wireless assets with its newly acquired data center expertise is an early illustration of Digital Bridge’s strategy and vision translating to a specific product offering. It’s owned several wireless companies for some time, but last year started buying up data center providers; so far, it has acquired DataBank, Utah-based C7 Data Centers, Silicon Valley wholesale heavyweight Vantage Data Centers, and individual assets from 365 Data Centers.

In an earlier interview, Marc Ganzi, co-founder and CEO of Digital Bridge and executive chairman of Vertical Bridge, told us he believes wireless and data center worlds are converging:

He sees this convergence playing out in meetings with customers. “It’s not uncommon for us to have a meeting with a customer, and two of our CEOs will show up.” Its small-cell and tower teams will show up to a meeting with Verizon; a small-cell and a data center team will come to meet with Google.

The convergence is driven by the growing need communications, content, and cloud companies have to extend the edges of their networks to more locations. A content provider will use these edge computing nodes to store popular content closer to its consumers to reduce data-transport costs and improve user experience, for example; meanwhile, a cloud service provider may want to put some processing capacity closer to its business users to improve performance instead of having user requests travel to a remote cloud data center.

But industry players predict even more demand for edge computing nodes to come in the near future to support the upcoming wave of next-generation applications like self-driving cars and virtual and augmented reality, which will require heavy processing power close to end users in order to work to their full potential.

Some companies, including AT&T, Toyota, and NTT Communications, have already started investing in edge computing networks to support those future applications.

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