Delivering a step change in connectivity

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 spoke to Jonathan Davidson, SVP and General Manager, Cisco Mass-Scale Infrastructure, Cisco.

Telco operators around the world “have been investing 30 to 40 billion dollars a year in deploying radio access technology and we still have so many parts of the globe that do not have coverage or do not have decent coverage,” says Jonathan Davidson, SVP and General Manager, Cisco Mass-Scale Infrastructure. “This is something that can be transformed with this new approach that Rakuten Mobile has pioneered. You could definitely call it profound.”

Jonathan Davidson, SVP and General Manager, Cisco Mass-Scale Infrastructure, Cisco.
Jonathan Davidson, SVP and General Manager, Cisco Mass-Scale Infrastructure, Cisco.

Cisco, which plays a key role in developing and deploying the cloud-native virtualized architecture being used by Rakuten Mobile, says this new highly-automated approach is attracting a lot of interest among the world’s leading operators. “A lot of people have focused on the technology, but the operations of that technology is equally exciting,” says Davidson, describing Rakuten Mobile’s cloud-first operations as transformative. Thanks to its operational cost advantage, Rakuten Mobile is able to provide its customers with very attractive tariffs. “I think this is going to be widely adopted inside of Japan,” Davidson predicts. “This is just the beginning. Now we need to get to 5G and we need to scale the infrastructure.” As it deploys 5G, Rakuten Mobile could further extend its cost advantage over legacy networks

As well as supplying the IP (internet protocol) routers that transport traffic from Rakuten’s minimalist radio towers and the cloud radio access network (RAN) into the IP core, Cisco is also providing the management orchestration software for the virtual cloud native functions and software required to support third party applications. “Cisco is playing a crucial role in stitching together the various elements of our new network,” says Rakuten Mobile CTO Tareq Amin“The design approach we mapped out with Cisco is enabling us to deliver high-value services at very affordable prices, enabling our customers to really benefit from our cloud innovation. Scaling of such orchestration function is a challenge.” 

Getting competitors to collaborate

Although Cisco had many of the required technologies in its portfolio, it has learned a lot from the Rakuten Mobile deployment. “Any time you do something that has never been done before, there are going to be a lot of challenges that you have to uncover,” notes Davidson. “It always comes back to the team and making sure the team is aligned to a joint vision and a joint mission. Tareq is a phenomenal visionary who has got companies that have traditionally been competitors to collaborate and partner in new ways to really achieve something that has not been achieved before.”

As Rakuten Mobile’s software-defined architecture enables it to fine-tune its network in real-time, Davidson expects the network to perform at a very high level, bringing reliability and throughput benefits to customers.  As the performance, technical and operations advantages become increasingly apparent, Cisco expects other operators to follow in Rakuten Mobile’s footsteps and deploy cloud-based radio access networks underpinned by open specifications, rather than vendors’ proprietary hardware and software. 

Rewriting the technology stack

A wholesale shift from closed to open would have fundamental implications for the network equipment industry. “Rakuten was the first to go down this path, but every legacy vendor of RAN technology is going to have to rewrite their technology stack to be open and cloud compliant, or quite frankly, they will not be able to sell any of their radio technology to any service provider,” Davidson contends. “That’s the level of transformation we are going to see…and that’s going to bring a level of openness to this area of infrastructure, which, quite frankly, is the last piece of closed infrastructure in the entire networking technology stack.” 

Cisco’s management orchestration software for virtual cloud native functions supports operations and third party applications across the Rakuten Mobile network.

Rakuten Mobile’s pioneering approach “says a tremendous amount around their belief in the technology stack and what you can do with disruptive technology,” he adds. “This is the first example we have of cloud fundamentally transforming how we are deploying a radio access network.”

Of course, Rakuten Mobile is in a completely different position from most telecoms operators, in that it didn’t have an existing network to worry about. “Most operators in the world are brownfield in that they have legacy infrastructure and so any transformation that is going to happen is going to require you to have these two elements of infrastructure working with each other. They will need to interoperate with each other,” notes Davidson. “Even if you said: my 5G infrastructure is going to be completely cloud RAN focused, you are still going to have scenarios anywhere in the world, where you are going to need to fall back to 4G, you might even fall back to 3G.”

Across the globe, telecom operators are now testing the technologies and architecture that Rakuten Mobile has deployed through proofs-of-concept or small trials. Cisco is one of the vendors supporting the Rakuten Communications Platform, taking it even further towards containers, which is designed to help other operators move to fully cloud-native virtualized networks. “Certainly, Rakuten has had a big influence on what we are building and what we will be able to build in future,” concludes Davidson. “We hope to be able to replicate these innovations together around the world.”

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