Rakuten Mobile’s revolutionary approach to telecommunications has been well documented. Doing what many thought impossible, the company designed and built the world’s first end-to-end cloud-native, fully virtualized mobile network and launched a 4G LTE service in Japan earlier this year during what many describe as the most challenging times of this century. Then, just six months later, the company launched its 5G service, offering customers an upgraded service plan called Rakuten UN-LIMIT V which adds 5G to the existing plan for no additional fees.
This history-making network may have never happened had there not been a chance meeting at a Mobile World Congress event in Barcelona just three years ago, when Rakuten CEO Mickey Mikitani was introduced to Tareq Amin. At the time, Amin was working on completion of the deployment of one of the world’s fastest growing mobile networks in India. Within months, he was leading Rakuten Mobile as CTO; working with Mikitani and team to not build a traditional mobile network in Japan, but to think differently.
Over the following two years, Rakuten Mobile brought together some of the most innovative and agile technology vendors — from large, well-known mobile industry suppliers like Intel and Qualcomm to emerging players such as Altiostar and InnoEye — forging uncommon partnerships among traditional competitors to support a vision of a mobile network built on the principles of open interfaces, virtualization, interoperability, and delivered cloud-native, with an elegantly designed software stack. This network was to be highly reliable, flexible, scalable, secure and resilient. Perhaps equally as important, the network had to be low cost so that people could access mobile services more affordably than ever before.
Now the mobile service has launched, and history has been made. But Rakuten Mobile isn’t done yet. Following its recent 5G launch, Rakuten Mobile is getting ready to bring its network architecture to the world through Rakuten Communications Platform, or RCP.
Democratizing telecoms for the 5G era: RCP
The goal behind RCP is to empower telcos and enterprises around the world to easily draw on what Rakuten Mobile has already done in Japan: offer a secure and open mobile network at speed and low cost, generate new revenue streams and offer customers innovative and immersive experiences.
RCP will provide both greenfield and brownfield operators access to the best of Rakuten Mobile’s network design, which combines the latest technology in virtualization and automation, including containers and microservices. The process is simple: RCP customers can visit an online marketplace where they can click, purchase and deploy everything needed to run their private, cloud-native, virtualized 5G mobile network, wherever they may be located in the world.
Open infrastructure: Breaking free from tradition
“Rakuten has been able to innovate while others have struggled; defining, discussing and debating industry standards and what to do and not to do,” says Amin.
The new network, as well as RCP, is built on two pillars, Amin says. The first: OpenRAN architecture. “Rakuten Mobile’s network has the world’s first and largest cloud-based OpenRAN platform deployed,” he explains. “It is completely decoupled, meaning the separation of hardware and software has become a reality, and the interfaces for radio are no longer a black box, a mystery. Everything is connected through open interfaces to our architecture.” Rakuten Mobile’s current Radio Access Network comprises of multi-vendor radio units covering 4G and 5G, all interoperating with its open and virtualized RAN software.
“By decoupling expensive, proprietary hardware such as the baseband unit and converting it to software, we have achieved what most operators can only aspire to deploy in the future,” added Amin.
The second pillar is something Amin reckons is a unique advantage for Rakuten: “We’re applying an IT industry approach, rather than building custom hardware,” Amin says. “This allows us to achieve economies of scale, to avoid needing to build custom hardware, and most importantly to deploy our software on a pure cloud architecture.”
What this IT approach means, adds Rabih Dabboussi, who leads RCP global sales and marketing from its new global headquarters in Singapore, is that Rakuten Mobile and RCP are breaking down the status quo and reducing the telecom industry’s reliance on a small number of large vendors.
“The industry has been dominated for the last 30 years by a handful of vendors,” he explains. “Meanwhile, the cost of building a new generation of network has increased significantly every time the industry adopts a new generation of radio technologies: 2G to 2.5G to 3G to 4G and now to 5G. The double whammy for the operators is the fact that revenues have continued to shrink over the last 2 decades as the introduction of high-speed internet access from mobile devices has reduced the average spend per consumer.”
Through Rakuten Communications Platform, Dabboussi wants to take all of this and make it available to any telco operator or enterprise who wants it, dramatically reducing expenditure at both the building and operational phases and lowering the barrier of entry for innovative services.
“We want to eliminate the need for massive, expensive, complex, monolithic systems in a telco network. The transition towards 5G presents an opportune time to rethink the strategies and technology stack of next generation mobile networks,” he explains.
Japan is just the beginning
Rakuten Mobile’s network in Japan may only be a few months old, but Dabboussi doesn’t believe it’s too early to let the rest of the world in on the fun.
He wants the mobile industry to know that the success of the Rakuten Mobile model in Japan is easily replicable. “Our vision is to take this platform and enable telcos around the world — and ultimately governments, enterprises and industries as they roll out 5G networks — to show them that there is an alternative,” he says. “We have succeeded at doing that ourselves at a fraction of the cost. The network is operational. It’s working. And it’s providing the value and the results that we originally aimed for. It’s a compelling business case.”
New DNA for telcos
Unbound by the shackles of decades-old infrastructure, Rakuten Mobile has been able to build something that promises to revolutionize the industry. But Amin doesn’t think this is the only reason Rakuten Mobile’s work has been so visionary.
“I don’t believe that this is just about greenfield operations. I always say that this is about the greenfield mentality,” Amin argues. “It’s the DNA and the culture of the Rakuten organization that has enabled us to build what was deemed an impossible idea, something that was met with significant skepticism just two years ago.”
With that skepticism rapidly fading into the background and the telecom industry on the cusp of a new era, Rakuten is preparing to share its learnings with the world.