MEC benefits for transportation and logistics

How reduced bandwidth costs, improved cybersecurity, and lower latency can transform location tracking and analytics

by AT&T Business Transportation Solutions Team

David LeBlanc, Director of Industry Solutions at AT&T Business, offers decades of experience in manufacturing and operations, including aerospace and automotive engineering. He routinely meets with manufacturers to discuss the pain points of their businesses and helps them discover the best solutions to meet their short- and long-term goals.

The transportation and logistics industry is very diverse; it includes trucking, air travel (of people and cargo,) intermodal shipping, rail, and ship liner businesses. Complex operations are required to ensure alignment across organizations for the safe delivery of what (or who) is transported. In this interview, we discuss how Multi-access Edge Computing (MEC) can play a role in providing the increased safety and security of data the transportation and logistics industry needs to deliver freight and cargo.

Q: We’re going to discuss different aspects of the transportation and logistics industry for using Multi-access Edge Computing. What exactly is MEC?

A: MEC is an x86 server that can perform computing closer to the area of end usage instead of in a remote central cloud. It acts as a single point of aggregation for application computing traffic from this local area, in which a cellular or Wi-Fi network is located. MEC has software that can enable it to act as a “breakaway” point for traffic to either stay in the MEC for computing (or to a connected local data center) or proceed to a central cloud for storage or computing. Due to the closer location, the computing results can be improved with shorter latency. This is an enabler for newer technologies that require lower latency computing for their applications.

Q: What does a typical MEC architecture look like, and does that vary based on the type of organization implementing it?

A: A MEC implementation requires a cellular network in the premises where the application data source is located. In addition to cellular, a Wi-Fi network can also be used. This cellular umbrella coverage is provided by a Distributed Antenna System (DAS) which is connected via the MEC to the AT&T evolved packet core (EPC) for signaling and conditioning and carries a small amount of traffic, around 32 kbps. The majority of the traffic is cellular traffic which emanates from the end-use applications and connects to the DAS. The DAS has a baseband unit that is wired to the MEC. In addition, Wi-Fi (when available) traffic can go through an Access Point Router and into the LAN that is connected to the MEC. The MEC is the breakaway point for local traffic to either stay local for computing or go to the central cloud for computing. The MEC also has VNF (Virtual Network Function) software which separates User Plane traffic from the Control Plane traffic. The latter is signaling and control traffic, as explained previously. The MEC can also be connected to a local data center for additional local computing resources. Cellular or Wi-Fi (when available) devices send data for local application computing in the MEC, resulting in a low-latency round trip time. This is one of the main advantages created by MEC.  

This MEC architecture can be applied to any organization that is located where cellular coverage is available. There are three options for cellular coverage: Using the macro cellular RAN, using a Private Cellular network, or a hybrid of both with a DAS. Every organization is unique, and additional discussions need to be conducted to understand the specific scenarios and requirements.

Q: We often think of what’s happening during transport for transportation and logistics. However, a flurry of activity must occur in every place from office operations, yards, depots, tarmacs, a number of locations. How can MEC help with this in the industry?

A: As described in the question, the transportation and logistics industry can be broken into smaller segments of activity. In general, MEC can be implemented separately to each type of activity and its physical environment. However, further investigations must be done for each unique application. The advantages of using MEC are common to all applications: ultra-low latency, high reliability computing together with increased privacy and security for each specific application.

Q: In the locations outside of the office, all of the modes of transport require a heavy dependence on mobility. Phones and tablets, including bring-your-own-device (BYOD) scenarios, are the standard for operations. Does MEC work for companies in this type of situation?

A: Yes, mobility devices can be connected to a MEC through the localized cellular coverage provided by the DAS in each scenario. However, for cybersecurity reasons, the SIM and IMEI numbers of the allowed devices must be programmed into the DAS for connectivity. Secondly, the MEC also works on routing tables that rely on IP destination addresses. If these IP addresses are not for the allowed devices, then connection to MEC will not be possible.

Q: We’re seeing the progressive adoption of new and emerging tech in transportation and logistics. In trucking, for example, companies may one day use augmented reality (AR) headsets to provide remote assistance for truck maintenance. And in rail, vision systems powered by machine learning may be used for everything from operations to rail safety analysis. These technologies generate and deliver heavy amounts of data. It sounds like these would be good scenarios for MEC. Is that right?

A: Yes. The MEC depends on network connections from the localized cellular or Wi-Fi. If these networks transport heavy traffic loads, then the potential value of the MEC becomes evident. The MEC allows for local computing, which means that data traffic does not have to traverse the outside network to go to the central cloud for computing. This results in savings in network transport costs.

Q: What are the use cases for cargo and consumer airlines?

A: Relevant use cases will be those applications that can be resident on the MEC to benefit from the advantages of the MEC, such as lower network transport costs, data cybersecurity, and lower latency for faster turnaround of location and tracking information. For cargo airlines, the tracking of cargo pieces is done by scanners which could be facilitated by the localized cellular network for feeding traffic into a storage back-end application. This application can be housed on the MEC. Any RTLS (Real Time Location Service) application to track location of cargo can be on a MEC. Instead of a cloud-based storage platform for Internet of Things (IoT) sensor data, the MEC can be used instead to capture data locally for analytics.

For consumer airlines, all aspects of IoT uses cases with passengers in mind could be eligible for the MEC. This includes tracking of baggage, people, and other airport accessories such as wheelchairs. For any type of airline, tracking of ground equipment or parts for the success of operation would be relevant uses cases. In all situations, lower latency and reduced network transport costs would be top of mind.

Q: In some of these industries, such as trucking, there continues to be a workforce shortage, especially for equipment operators. And as technology continues to influence which skills are required, companies are having to pivot for which jobs skills are needed. Does MEC require specialized skills to implement and maintain? If, so, how can a business solve for this?

A: Currently, MEC is offered as a managed service from AT&T. Therefore, with this service, customers will be exempt from the day to day MEC management and servicing and can rely on an AT&T service agreement for the service.

Q: You shared what a MEC architecture looks like and the network that complements it. A lot of the benefits for MEC are similar to what 5G will provide. How would you describe the intersection between Wi-Fi, MEC, and 5G?

A: Wi-Fi and 5G are communication networks. Specifically, Wi-Fi is a LAN protocol, and 5G can evolve into a WAN protocol. However, MEC is a computing platform that is fed transported data from the Wi-Fi (when available in the future) and 5G networks. They can all work together to leverage the full benefit of the MEC.


Q: So it’s not either/or, but “and,” correct?

A: It’s always about 5G and MEC or Wi-Fi and MEC. These three capabilities work in conjunction with each other.


Q: Are there any other thoughts you’d like to leave us with?

A: The MEC is a revolutionary concept of edge computing that will enable the use of newer technologies for achieving greater efficiencies in our customers’ operations. We at AT&T will be glad to support further technical and business discussions for the implementation of the MEC in conjunction with cellular networks.

Learn more about AT&T Business solutions for the transportation industry.