In a radical partnership between mobile operator and vendor, Rakuten Mobile and NEC Corp. are working together to co-develop a completely new core network for 5G network architecture.
The two companies are adapting state-of-the-art computing technology to create a standalone (SA) 5G core network that promises to be far more cost-effective and flexible than its predecessors. While Rakuten Mobile is on track to launch non-standalone (NSA) 5G service in 2020, this pioneering architecture for the heart and brains of standalone 5G mobile networks will be based on source code developed by NEC and set to deploy in Rakuten Mobile’s standalone 5G network to be launched in Japan in 2021.
The new standalone 5G core will be a major part of the recently announced Rakuten Communications Platform (RCP), a carrier-grade container platform. It will be offered as a containerized application on the RCP Marketplace, allowing telecoms operators and enterprises across the world to easily “click, purchase and deploy” a fully virtualized and cloud native standalone 4G and 5G converged core network as a service that can be used with standard off-the-shelf hardware, rather than proprietary equipment.
Bringing a Japan-quality platform to the world
Speaking during a virtual event announcing the partnership earlier this month, Mickey Mikitani, chairman and CEO of Rakuten, said NEC demonstrated the necessary commitment and openness to build a new generation platform with the potential to become a global standard. “It may sound a little bit strange that two Japanese companies are now trying to challenge the global telecom industry,” said Mikitani. “But I am very, very confident we will be able to bring this Japan-quality platform to the world.”
As one of the main suppliers for its 5G radio access network (RAN) and a supplier of operations and business support systems for the company’s 4G network, NEC is already a key partner for Rakuten Mobile. During the webinar, Takashi Niino, president and CEO of NEC, stressed that his company shares Rakuten’s values, noting, “The partnership with Rakuten will create new social value not only in Japan, but also for communities all over the world.”
One of the most exciting features of the new architecture is the virtualization of the user plane of the core network, which carries the user traffic, explained Tareq Amin, CTO of Rakuten Mobile. The architecture will employ containerized microservices to efficiently host and run applications with all of their related configuration files, libraries and dependencies. By creating all the necessary functionality in software, rather than customized hardware, this approach is designed to deliver better performance and greater agility.
The “unvendor platform”
Amin stressed that Rakuten Mobile “has no interest” in being a telecoms equipment vendor. Instead, it wants to “co-innovate” with partners. He described the sharing of software source code and joint development with NEC as “very unusual and unorthodox in this day and age.” The RCP will use fully open interfaces to link together NEC’s new 5G core network with Rakuten’s central and distributed units and NEC’s 5G remote radio unit.
“The 5G remote radio unit of NEC is a completely 100% open platform built, manufactured, designed today in Japan and delivering cost efficiencies that I think are unimaginable in the traditional telecom world,” Amin added. “Rakuten Mobile is the first customer of Rakuten Communications Platform, but I believe that, in the future, the platform is very well suited for governments, for enterprises and for mobile operators. This is the ‘unvendor platform.’”
Rakuten and NEC plan to create a global network of innovation labs to partner with mobile operators, enterprises and governments worldwide to bring their disruptive new architecture to global markets. “It’s not about a vendor-operator relationship, it is a true partnership and true collaboration,” Amin said. By controlling every element of the supply chain, the two Japanese companies also plan to offer customers a very high level of security.
All about the ecosystem
Takayuki Morita, SEVP and member of the board at NEC, told the audience that the new strategic partnership combines his company’s “world class ICT technology and R&D capability” with Rakuten’s “great ecosystem supported by world class cloud.”
Indeed, Rakuten Mobile believes the rollout of 5G will enable its customers to take full advantage of the well-established Rakuten ecosystem, which encompasses a broad range of internet-based services and apps. The ecosystem “is a massive, massive advantage to what we have to offer to consumers in Japan,” Amin noted.
Mikitani also updated the webinar on the progress of Rakuten Mobile’s cloud-native and virtualized 4G network in Japan, which launched commercially in April of this year. He described the network as very stable, extremely flexible, scalable and secure. “So, now I can say the virtualized technology is going to be the next big thing in this industry,” he added.