The Rakuten Mobile network in Japan is a window into the future of connectivity according to Pat Gelsinger, CEO of Intel. The leader of one of the world’s largest chip companies — and a Rakuten Mobile technology partner — compared the “industry shaping” significance of Rakuten’s innovative mobile network to the advent of cloud environments 20 years ago.
We’ve cracked it open, … we’re going to have these horizontally-distributed systems, standardized hardware that allows a torrid pace of software innovation on top of it.”Pat Gelsinger, CEO, Intel
During a virtual interview with Rakuten chairman and CEO Mickey Mikitani at Rakuten Optimism 2021 on October 13, Gelsinger contended that Rakuten and Intel “have changed the communications industry,” compelling the mobile world to “rethink what the future of telecommunications looks like.”
Stepping up the pace of innovation
Rakuten and Intel have worked together to sever the tight links between hardware and software that have been hallmarks of cellular networks for the past 30 years. In place of this rigid architecture, Rakuten Mobile employs a highly flexible and scalable horizontal open cloud environment.
“We’ve cracked it open, … we’re going to have these horizontally-distributed systems, standardized hardware that allows a torrid pace of software innovation on top of it,” Gelsinger said, adding that the new architecture means new software environments can be deployed “at speeds never possible before.”
“There will be new services that are possible on the network that have never before been conceived.”Pat Gelsinger, CEO, Intel
One of the big benefits of decoupling the network hardware from the software is that Rakuten can immediately take advantage of ongoing improvements in each area. “This year’s version of the silicon is better than last year’s version” Gelsinger explained. “That’s the magic of Moore’s Law. It just keeps getting better in a software-compatible way. It’s a powerful cycle.”
Optimizing computing for cellular
At the same time, Intel recognizes that industry standard computing hardware needs to be optimized to handle the nuances of running a complex cellular network. To support some distinctive functions associated with radio access networks and how they process signals, Intel has developed specific hardware accelerators. As a result “you get the benefits of the general purpose architecture. And you get the benefits of these unique accelerators,” Gelsinger said. “Putting those together, we’re already demonstrating well above the power and energy efficiencies of the traditional approach and the rate of innovation that we’re on is dramatically faster.”
“This year’s version of the silicon is better than last year’s version. That’s the magic of Moore’s Law. It just keeps getting better in a software-compatible way. It’s a powerful cycle.”Pat Gelsinger, CEO, Intel
What does all this mean for mobile network operators, such as Rakuten Mobile? How can they avoid being a “dumb pipe,” that just provides connectivity, asked Mikitani? For Gelsinger, the answer lies in whether operators are prepared to innovate. “There will be new services that are possible on the network that have never before been conceived,” he said. “And we’re going to keep opening up new interfaces, new APIs, new capabilities” that will transform “distributed environments into smart cities and factories and so on.” As a result, service providers will have “tremendous opportunities” that will be “significantly monetizable,” he added.
Private 5G networks for manufacturing and a wireless future
Intel anticipates that manufacturers will increasingly choose to deploy private 5G networks, rather than Wi-Fi 6, in their factories. “You have a better security model, you have better latency, better quality of service characteristics,” explained Gelsinger. With the advent of 6G (towards the end of this decade), businesses may abandon wires all together, as wireless opens up a clear performance advantage, he added.
Intel plans to build out new capacity for the rest of the decade, anticipating that annual shipments of semiconductors will double by 2030, as new cloud data centers, medical applications, autonomous vehicles and the world continues to digitalize.
Growing pains for the semiconductor sector
One of the potential brakes on innovation, at least in the short-term, is an acute shortage of semiconductors in the wake of the pandemic. Noting that the shortage will be at its most severe in the second half of 2021, Gelsinger said it “will get better every quarter of next year, but the shortages will persist into 2023,” as it takes more than three years to build a new semiconductor plant from scratch.
“This is the way that every network will get built in the future.”Pat Gelsinger, CEO, Intel
In any case, Intel plans to build out new capacity for the rest of the decade, anticipating that annual shipments of semiconductors will double by 2030, as new cloud data centers, medical applications, autonomous vehicles and the world continues to digitalize. In fact, Gelsinger predicted that 90% of humanity will be online by 2030.
Bringing innovation to the world
Intel intends to break ground on new factories next year, two fabs at Intel’s Arizona site broke ground in September, and additional sites in the U.S. and Europe will reduce the industry’s reliance on Asia. “The world became much too reliant on too few locations for something as important as semiconductors,” Gelsinger said.
Intel is also keen to globalize the technologies and solutions it has developed and deployed with Rakuten in Japan. Underlining the importance of Intel’s partnership with Rakuten, Gelsinger said the next steps are to build new use cases on top of Rakuten’s innovative network and replicate the underlying architecture around the world. “This is the way that every network will get built in the future,” he said. “And I think that’s a great opportunity for us to partner… to change the rest of the world’s communication networks.”
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