It’s been 20 years since some tech companies introduced a cheap, low-powered computer dubbed the NetPC that connected with a more powerful server to run applications. The effort was a flop, but the concept could be back as wireless networks move to much faster 5G technology.
AT&T, for example, plans to build thousands of small cloud computing data centers in central offices and other locations across the country. With the faster and more capable connections phones will have using 5G, users could rely more on the computing power in these cloud servers and not need such powerful processing chips and other expensive components, according to Mazin Gilbert, vice president for advanced technology and systems at AT&T.
“Can my $1,000 mobile phone be $10 or $20 dollars, where all the intelligence is really sitting at the edge?,” he asked, speaking at AT&T’s Business Summit on Thursday in Dallas. “It’s absolutely possible.”
Already, some phones running Google’s Android software rely on cloud servers to perform tasks like image recognition of photos and transcription of voice mail messages. And Nvidia (nvda) and Sony (sne) have talked about letting mobile users access high-definition video games relying on powerful graphics processing done in the cloud.
Apple (aapl) has so far gone in the other direction, putting increasingly powerful chips in its iPhone line to perform such machine learning and artificial intelligence tasks completely on the device. In the newest iPhone XS, Apple included what it calls a neural engine on the A12 Bionic chip to perform AI tasks even more quickly.
The design and capabilities of existing wireless networks and cloud data centers supports only limited offloading of tasks. Current 4G LTE networks have a relatively long lag between when a phone sends data or a request to a server and when the server sends back an answer. And the relatively small number and geographic dispersal of massive cloud data centers run by companies like Amazon (amzn) and Google (googl) further slows the flow of information from phone to cloud and back again.
With 5G and AT&T’s (t) plan to build thousands of smaller, dispersed cloud data centers, however, the lag, known in the industry as latency, will be greatly reduced, Gilbert explained. “The intelligence now is following you,” he said. “The intelligence is getting distributed.”
Still, it could be many years before the wireless networks are able to handle such tasks. AT&T has just started building its 5G network and other carriers are similarly at early stages in their deployments.