Future-proofing 5G: Rakuten Mobile and Telefónica team up to transform cellular tech

One of the largest telecoms groups in the world has spoken out in favor of new mobile evolution that promises to make cellular technology far more flexible and cost-effective. Madrid-based Telefónica and Rakuten Mobile have signed a memorandum of understanding that will see them work together to advance OpenRAN (radio access network) technology, 5G core networks and operations support systems (OSS).

“This is a massive opportunity for all of us,” Enrique Blanco, CTIO of Telefónica, told a webinar announcing the partnership this week. With extensive operations across Europe and Latin America, Telefónica plans to run pilots of OpenRAN technology during 2020 and 2021, as a precursor to “a massive deployment in one of our main cities, our main operations” in the first quarter of 2022. With an OpenRAN system, the hardware and software employed in the radio network can be sourced from multiple different vendors, giving the operator a high degree of flexibility. 

Blanco predicted that, between 2022 to 2025, 50% of Telefónica’s upgrades to radio sites will employ this new technology. “This is not a wish, this is not a hope, Rakuten has demonstrated that this is a fact,” he added, alluding to Rakuten Mobile’s successful deployment of Open RAN technologies in Japan. “We will be pushing extremely hard trying to guarantee that this happens.” The pilots will be designed to ensure the new technology can deliver the five nines (99.999%) availability that has long been a benchmark for telecoms networks.

Enrique Blanco,  CTIO of Telefónica
Enrique Blanco, CTIO of Telefónica

Blanco also explained that Telefónica will work with Rakuten Mobile to enable both the network core and the OSS to become highly-automated, using machine learning to optimize the allocation of resources in response to real-time shifts in demand.

Time to revamp brownfield networks

For Rakuten Mobile, working with Telefónica represents “an absolutely amazing opportunity to prove that this technology is not just applicable in greenfield operations, but also applicable when you look at brownfield operations,” Tareq Amin, representative director, EVP and CTO of Rakuten Mobile, told the webinar. “We think this is absolutely transformational to running and operating and engineering traditional networks.”

He explained that being able to run the radio network software in data centres at the edge of the network, rather than in a proprietary hardware in a base station, opens up “enormous” opportunities to improve the software. This kind of architecture could provide the foundations telecoms networks will need “to become fully autonomous,” he added. Even though it is serving some of the densest urban conurbations in the world, the operating costs of Rakuten Mobile’s network are Japan is already 30% lower than that of a conventional network, Amin noted.

The Rakuten Network Operating System, which is part of the Rakuten Communications Platform, is designed to support much greater automation than has been possible in the past.  “We have implemented virtual agents and analytics into the network and we’re marching towards something we call level four autonomous network,” Amin said. The ultimate goal is to deploy a network that can manage itself and “most importantly, without the legacy building-blocks of the organizations that hindered most telecom companies to offer services faster and quicker than OTT and internet-facing companies,” he added.

Tareq Amin, CTO of Rakuten Mobile
Tareq Amin, CTO of Rakuten Mobile

Although some industry vendors have suggested an OpenRAN network may be more vulnerable to attacks, the opposite may be true, as the operator can now see what is happening across the network. “There are no more black boxes,” Amin said. “You have full visibility and I think that’s the beginning of what future security might look like.” 

Better visibility, better security

Both Blanco and Amin stressed that they are also looking to work with other mobile operators to further develop cellular technology. “We are not building a competitive tool with OpenRAN,” said Blanco, noting that Telefónica is in discussions with other large European operators. “We are building an ecosystem.”

“I am very confident that you’ll see quite a bit of industry collaboration to push this concept around open networks,” Amin added. He underlined the importance of operators engaging with the component suppliers, as well as equipment vendors, to discuss the best approach to meet their costs and performance targets.  “I’m optimistic that it will change.” 

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