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 John Harrington, Head of Nokia Japan.
For the past three decades, Nokia has been part of the fabric of the global mobile industry. Yet the 150 year-old company remains at the cutting edge of mobile technology, playing a multi-faceted role in the development and deployment of Rakuten Mobile’s radical new network.
Although Finland-based Nokia works with hundreds of mobile operators around the world, it hasn’t had a customer quite like Rakuten Mobile before. One of the biggest differences is that Rakuten Mobile is applying the high levels of automation employed in its internet businesses to telecommunications. “Rakuten Mobile is a challenging customer because they’re doing things at speed, doing things at internet speed: whereas things that take a traditional telco several months, they’re doing in several weeks,” says John Harrington, Head of Nokia Japan. “It’s basically us working with a web-scale company in the telco environment. So we’re learning a lot … they’re trying things that haven’t been done at scale before, they are innovating very quickly and because of that we’re having to be more agile and move faster ourselves.”
To meet Rakuten Mobile’s request for an open RAN (radio access network) architecture, Nokia had to undertake significant R&D to create an open interface between its equipment and software supplied by Altiostar. “That was a big decision for Nokia,” says Harrington. “We took a bold move in doing that… it’s allowing Rakuten Mobile to deploy a virtualized RAN, which is separating the hardware from the software and separating the base station from the edge cloud and disaggregating the base station from the baseband.”
Endowed with one of the broadest portfolios in the telecomm equipment industry, Nokia is supplying a mix of hardware, software and services for the radio, core and optical transport elements of Rakuten Mobile’s network. “First and foremost we’re one of the primary partners in rolling out the network and providing operational support, from a professional services perspective,” explains Harrington. “We’re supporting Rakuten with products, people, software and services enabled by our industry leading end to end portfolio: We’re considered a trusted partner in multiple domains.”
Software-orientated, automated and resilient
Although experts from Nokia are in Japan helping Rakuten Mobile operate the new network, the high level of automation means they are relatively few in number. “We have Nokia people inside the data centre and the network operations centre, but the number of people that we have is considerably less or fewer than you would have in a traditional telco, because everything is software-orientated, is highly automated, has a lot of digital workflows,” notes Harrington.
One of the advantages of Rakuten Mobile’s cloud-native network is that it can be updated and improved with Continuous Integration and Continuous Development (CI/CD), in the same way that cloud-based software can be continually refined. “I think it will be much faster, a richer experience for the subscribers because of the speed of new service introduction,” says Harrington. “With the Rakuten Mobile approach, the cloud native approach, capacity and resources can be defined and instantiated in software bringing more flexibility and resilience to the network. Rakuten are really at the forefront of a software container-based architecture.”
Given these advantages and the lower capital and operating costs of Rakuten Mobile’s network, telecoms executives across the world are watching closely to see how this architecture performs as the number of customers grows. “We’re in the very early stages, but you know when people ask me: ‘John, does it work?’ I say ‘yes, we’ve got 5,000 base stations out there with live commercial users … absolutely it works.’”
New 5G services and capabilities
Nokia and Rakuten Mobile are now focused on expanding the capabilities of the network, which will be upgraded to support 5G NSA (non-standalone) services this fall. Responsible for the Internet of Things core network, Nokia is also helping Rakuten Mobile develop specific services for enterprises, spanning both offices and industrial sites. “Rakuten Mobile has this deep edge cloud network that could also be used for enterprise connectivity by extending the optical fibers,” Harrington explains. “We have an ambition in 5G for enterprise …in an industrial nation like Japan, 5G is very important for transportation, energy segment, government and cities, manufacturing and logistics.”
Tareq Amin, CTO of Rakuten Mobile, has been impressed with Nokia’s adaptability and flexibility. “Rather than being wedded to conventional thinking, Nokia has embraced our vision of how cloud and connectivity technologies can be combined in a compelling way,” he says. “As we prepare to upgrade our network to support 5G and the needs of enterprises, our fruitful relationship with Nokia continues to expand and evolve.”
Elsewhere in the world, Nokia is considering how it can apply the lessons it has learned from working with Rakuten Mobile over the past 24 months. “It is going to have an influence on our overall strategy,” says Harrington. “I think we’re learning a lot in terms of automation, analytics and workflow and how to make a software cloud native environment operational at scale.”
Although Nokia initially began working with Rakuten Mobile on the RAN and the physical deployment of the network, the evolution of the relationship to encompass cloud and software development is strategically important for the Finland-based company. “We are not selling products, we are selling software,” says Harrington. “And to be working with a company like Rakuten Mobile is very inspiring to us.”