Rakuten’s groundbreaking mobile network is arousing no shortage of curiosity in Barcelona this week. At Mobile World Congress 2019 (MWC19), the mobile industry’s largest annual gathering, industry executives and analysts have been firing questions at Tareq Amin, chief technology officer (CTO) of newcomer Rakuten Mobile Network, as they seek to learn more about Rakuten’s move to become the first new mobile network operator to launch in Japan in over a decade. On the first day of the event, it was reported that 10 mobile network operators made visits to Rakuten’s booth to hear more about how the global innovation company is deploying its new network.

Why all the interest?

Rakuten is aiming to achieve a world-first: It is building an end-to-end fully virtualized cloud-native network. For an industry that has always deployed a lot of expensive kit in the field, that is a big deal. Slated to launch in October 2019, Rakuten’s new network consists entirely of software running on standardized low cost hardware, rather than the expensive proprietary hardware that most cellular networks depend upon.

“To build this is not easy: It really requires motivating a massive, massive industry that, for the better part of a decade, has been lagging behind in terms of innovation and the ability to push the envelope forward in virtualization — especially in areas like radio access,” Amin, who has also held senior positions at Reliance Jio and T-Mobile, said during a panel discussion with other industry CTOs. “Our biggest advantage is that we are not a telecommunications company. Rakuten understands running IT very, very well.”

Simpler, easier, cheaper

Tareq Amin went on to explain that the base stations Rakuten is deploying in Japan have far less kit than those in a conventional cellular network. Each Rakuten site comprises a simplified radio antenna, a remote radio head and a fiber connection. There is no cabinet packed with elaborate electronics. “In my previous job, we had 571 SKUs [different pieces of hardware]. Today, we have four,” Amin noted during an event hosted by Netcracker, another Rakuten partner. That makes the network far more flexible and easier to maintain and upgrade: Simplification translates into much lower operating costs, as well as lower capital spending.

Rakuten estimates its total cost of ownership will be significantly lower than that of a typical cellular network. Although Rakuten’s new network will have thousands of edge data centers, it will be managed by an uncommonly small team. “The level of automation you need to make this work is phenomenal,” Amin stressed.

Industry analysts are taking notice

“Rakuten is the promised land that we’re all trying to get to,” said Andy Hicks, Principal Analyst, Global Telecom Technology & Software, GlobalData, after hearing Amin speak at an event hosted by Cisco, one of Rakuten’s partners. “’Cloudifying’ the entire infrastructure, automating and controlling everything via software should let them be very agile while still running lean. Now we get to see how it works in practice.  When you’re operating a unified resource pool, one looping process or one configuration mistake can cause problems in multiple places. If they don’t have some teething problems, we should award them the Nobel Prize. It will be really exciting to watch.”

Chris Lewis of Lewis Insight highlighted Rakuten’s separation of the underlying infrastructure from all of the functions required to support the services it will deliver to its broader ecosystem. “The fact that the start point comes from its wider e-commerce activity has shaped its attitude to technology and suppliers,” he noted. “Focusing on automation of processes, distribution to the ‘edge’ and leveraging the shift in the supplier community is at the heart of the strategy. Doubtless the more traditional telecoms players will be looking to learn lessons from this approach as they aim to benefit from technological and ecosystem dynamics.”

Rakuten Mobile Network CTO Tareq Amin (left) shares Rakuten's vision with industry leaders at the "What’s Keeping Operator CTOs up at Night?" panel on day one of MWC2019.

Rakuten Mobile Network CTO Tareq Amin (left) shares Rakuten’s vision with industry leaders at a panel at MWC19.

Following in Rakuten’s footsteps?

Judging by the discussions at MWC19, the mobile industry will be following Rakuten into a cloud-native future. “It is pretty clear that cloud is eating everything,” Michael Glickman, SVP, Global Service Provider Segment, Cisco, told industry analysts.

However, Catherine Michel, CTO, Sigma Systems, cautioned that there are “broad misconceptions” about what being cloud native actually means. If the operator fails to understand or articulate clearly “the ability to do the dynamic scaling and the ability to be independent of a database technology and the ability to run in any environment, then you are going to miss the point,” she said during the CTO panel “What’s Keeping Operator CTOs up at Night?” with Amin on day one of the conference.

Still, Amin expects the global telecoms industry to ultimately embrace the same network architecture as Rakuten is deploying in Japan. “The hardware-software disaggregation is going to change this industry,” he told industry analysts at the Cisco-hosted briefing. “We are going to go global.”


Rakuten will be at MWC in Barcelona from Mon, Feb 25, 2019 – Thu, Feb 28, 2019, where company leaders will share their vision for the future of mobile. For more details, visit here.

Header photo: Rakuten Mobile Network CTO Tareq Amin at the opening of Rakuten’s new 5G mobile cloud innovation lab in Tokyo in February 2019.

Rakuten Mobile Network CTO Tareq Amin, President of Bell Labs & Corporate CTO for Nokia Marcus Weldon, Cisco Global CTO Colin Kincaid and Altiostar President & CEO Ashraf M. Dahod break down what makes Rakuten’s new end-to-end cloud-native 5G-ready mobile network so special.