Transforming the Economics of Telecom: Rakuten Mobile and Altiostar reinvent Radio Access Networks (RAN)

This article is part of a series highlighting the collaboration between Rakuten Mobile and its partners to build the world’s first end-to-end fully virtualized cloud-native mobile network. In this edition, we speak with Ashraf M. Dahod, CEO of Altiostar Networks, Inc.

Base stations that make up Rakuten Mobile’s new network in Japan are unlike any others in the world. They are the first anywhere to use a virtualized cloud-native solution developed by Altiostar Networks, Inc., an innovative Massachusetts-based company that is less than 10 years old.

Why is this new technology significant? Unlike traditional base stations, Rakuten Mobile’s minimalist radio masts are largely powered by Altiostar vRAN software hosted on the cloud. That means a new Rakuten Mobile base station can be connected to its network in as little as eight minutes, compared to days or weeks for a conventional setup, dramatically cutting deployment costs. As there is very little on-site hardware, these base stations are also more robust and cost a lot less to run.

The electronic and computing power at mast is minimized, and compute-intensive software and applications have been centralized on commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware, enabling Rakuten Mobile to build redundancy and resiliency that was never possible with conventional architecture.

“If there is an accident at base station, there is no need for an engineer to get access to the site immediately,” says Ashraf M. Dahod, CEO of Altiostar. “We can automatically detect a failure and switch to a back-up, so you have recovery in minutes, rather than days.”

Ashraf M. Dahod, CEO of Altiostar speaking at the 2019 Rakuten Optimism U.S. event in San Francisco.
Ashraf M. Dahod, CEO of Altiostar speaking at the 2019 Rakuten Optimism U.S. event in San Francisco.

For Rakuten Mobile, that equates to a major cost and reliability advantage over the incumbent players in Japan. “We have combined Altiostar’s virtualized RAN software with a simple base station design and extensive automation,” says Tareq Amin, CTO of Rakuten Mobile. “This has simplified our ongoing maintenance to the point where we can manage and maintain this infrastructure with a significantly smaller team than other mobile network operators. That is a game changer.”

Opening up further advantages: 5G and beyond

Rakuten Mobile has also taken the pioneering step of using Open vRAN (Open virtualized Radio Access Network) technology, as opposed to the proprietary solutions supplied by major network vendors. The advantages of this radical approach will be even more apparent as Rakuten Mobile upgrades its base stations to support 5G, says Dahod. “With 5G, we have changed the economics by an order of magnitude,” he explains. “In 5G, the Rakuten Mobile cost advantage is much more dramatic than with 4G, as they have created their own supply chain that will deliver a 5G solution at a fraction of the cost of what the incumbent [equipment makers] have invested in developing 5G.”

Most telecom operators rely heavily on one or two large network equipment vendors to build and manage their networks. Not Rakuten Mobile. By working with many companies, Rakuten Mobile isn’t dependent on the “R&D velocity” of a single company and is able to tap the expertise of specialists in their field, Dahod says.

In some ways, Altiostar is the glue that binds Rakuten Mobile’s diverse vendor ecosystem together. It supplies the software platform that runs Rakuten Mobile’s RAN infrastructure, from the macro cells designed to provide wide area coverage outdoors to the small cells designed to ensure people can get a good signal indoors and in busy hotspots.

Altiostar expects the new radio access network to deliver a performance that will equal or better that of conventional radio access networks. “As we have a common cloud-based architecture, we have capabilities that the incumbents don’t have,” explains Dahod. “As the macro cells, the indoor cells and the outdoor cells are all run by a common set of software, we have better coordination.”

A massive R&D undertaking

Altiostar’s relationship with Rakuten dates back to February 2018 when the two companies met at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, the mobile industry’s premier event. Although the flexibility and efficiency of Altiostar’s streamlined radio access network solution appealed to Rakuten, the Tokyo-based company wanted to be more than 98% sure it would work before committing to it, Dahod recalls.

Rakuten visited Altiostar’s facilities in India to test their software. “They came to our facilities in Bengaluru and did extremely exhaustive testing of the solution and produced a pretty extensive test report, which showed our software was robust,” says Dahod. The results of that test prompted Mickey Mikitani, Chairman and CEO of Rakuten, to take the decision to only deploy a virtualized RAN, rather than combining it with a conventional solution. By August 2018, Altiostar had the go-ahead.

Altiostar’s virtualized cloud-native solution powers the radio access network for a world-first deployment at scale.
Altiostar’s virtualized cloud-native solution powers the radio access network for a world-first deployment at scale.

Although the tests suggested Altiostar’s software could meet Rakuten’s performance requirements, there was still a lot of work ahead for the engineers in India. “There were 150 features that Rakuten wanted us to develop,” says Dahod. “It was a massive R&D undertaking for the 4G deployment and in parallel we had to work on the 5G solution, help develop the hardware for the radio and also work on web-scale management and automation,” he adds, referring to the goal of enabling the new network to scale to very large numbers of sites.

“By December 2018, the first [4G] radio was installed, and we were ready for [the free trial] launch by October 2019,” recalls Dahod. “This was the first time we had installed a completely virtualized and automated solution at this scale: Our first deployment at web-scale.” During the development process, Rakuten became an investor in Altiostar, participating in a US$114 million Series C round of financing – a major vote of confidence in the Massachusetts company. 

Intrigued by Rakuten Mobile’s approach, mobile network operators around the world are evaluating whether they can use its streamlined architecture to dramatically lower the cost of deploying and operating 5G. For Altiostar, which is a major contributor to the Rakuten Communications Platform, that represents a significant opportunity. “Operators recognize that their customers want the high performance and low latency of 5G, but they want it at the same price as 4G,” says Dahod. “There has to be a different way, with a completely different supply chain, and the network has to be able to adapt to what the user is doing, which requires a lot of software intelligence.”

Dahod believes the global movement towards virtualization and Open vRAN architecture has now gained major momentum. “Rakuten Mobile has been a tremendously disruptive force in the industry globally,” he says. “They have definitely accelerated our mission and the movement towards Open vRAN.”

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