AT&T is turning to edge computing (EC) to better deliver next-generation applications like virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR), the carrier said this week.

AT&T reported its push toward EC comes as part of its effort to build a software-defined network capable of achieving single-digit millisecond latency. Such performance will be necessary for 5G applications, including VR and AR, autonomous cars, and others, that demand “massive amounts of near-real time computation.”

For VR/AR in particular, AT&T noted edge computing could help address obstacles like insufficient processing power on devices and battery life by shifting to the cloud the computation work needed to deliver those experiences. Edge computing can also cut down on VR/AR lag by slashing the distance information needs to travel across the network, the carrier added.

To do that, AT&T said it will move from using just a few data centers across the country to a model that includes “tens of thousands of central offices, macro towers, and small cells.” These, the company observed, are “usually never farther than a few miles from our customers,” effectively bringing the cloud down to earth. Eventually, edge computing systems could even be installed in smart infrastructure, like traffic lights, AT&T said.

“Edge computing fulfills the promise of the cloud to transcend the physical constraints of our mobile devices,” Andre Fuetsch, president of AT&T Labs and chief technology officer, commented. “The capabilities of tomorrow’s 5G are the missing link that will make edge computing possible. And few companies have the sheer number of physical locations that AT&T has that are needed to solve the latency dilemma.”

EC-capable services are already being deployed to AT&T’s enterprise customers via its FlexWare service, and additional applications – such as EC for public safety via its FirstNet build – are on the way, AT&T said.

AT&T has been pushing toward a software-defined network for some time. The carrier has previously revealed more than a third of its network is already virtualized, and said it is aiming to raise that figure to 55 percent by the end of this year and 75 percent by 2020. Part of that effort is the deployment of a centralized RAN (C-RAN) architecture, which will be virtualized down the road to help speed the evolution to 5G services. More on that from AT&T’s VP of RAN and Device Design Gordon Mansfield here.