Rakuten will soon become the first new mobile network operator (MNO) to launch in Japan in over a decade.
Since securing bandwidth approval from Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications in April 2018, Rakuten has been forging ahead with construction of its own new mobile network, driving world-first disruptive innovation.
New architecture for a new network
During Rakuten Technology Conference 2018 in Tokyo last October, Rakuten Mobile Network Chief Technology Officer (CTO) Tareq Amin explained for the first time the revolutionary approach that his team is taking to build Japan’s fourth major network.
“The journey that we are embarking on in Japan will enable a complete transformation in the telecom infrastructure buildout,” Amin explained. “We are building the world’s first end-to-end fully virtualized cloud-native network!!”
Since 2014, consumers in Japan have enjoyed affordable mobile phone service through Rakuten Mobile. The service has grown to become Japan’s biggest MVNO (mobile virtual network operator), enjoying particular success attracting young people with its low fees and appealing loyalty point incentives. As an MVNO, however, Rakuten Mobile utilizes the infrastructure of other major network carriers to deliver its service – limiting its ability to launch technical innovation and provide new services to customers.
As the new mobile network will be required to provide coverage across the entire country, Rakuten has mobilized partners and its employee base to rapidly secure sites to build out the radio access network, as well as signing an agreement with KDDI Corporation to provide roaming services during its own infrastructure construction period. Nevertheless, there has been speculation about the ambitious schedule and budget Rakuten has proposed for rolling out its plans.
“How could you do this? It is not possible to build a network in only 12 months without a significant capex investment,” posed Amin during his presentation. “It is possible because we are deploying a very different architecture and leveraging Rakuten IT skills as a leading tech company.”
A cloud-native network for the future
“The majority of the telecommunication companies in the world have been on this journey of transformation. And yet I would argue that very little progress has happened to deploy a true end-to-end cloud native network,” Amin stated. “In fact, there is not a single telco in the world that has moved all of its workloads to the cloud. I think Rakuten is going to be the only company in the world that’s going to enable this.”
Amin sees the cloud as the obvious path for the future of telecommunications. “How can you become more nimble? It can only happen when you build cloud-native networks. Existing networks are not agile and are unscalable.”
Despite this, telecommunication companies around the world seem reluctant to take this next step. Rakuten will lead the industry with their new network, predicts Amin. “While everybody has been talking for a while now about the need to migrate their workload to the cloud… we believe that the world-first implementation of cloud telco architecture is actually going to happen in Japan, and it’s going to happen at Rakuten.”
Network virtualization and edge computing
“Telecom companies across the world are in various stages of network transformation to a complete virtualized infrastructure,” explained Amin. A fully virtualized network allows a shift away from a model in which the hardware and software are tightly coupled to enable Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) technology to keep up with constantly changing market conditions. NFV uses the principles of cloud computing to create service delivery platforms with greater agility and customization.
Despite all the efforts across the telecom industry to move network workloads to the cloud, Amin notes that little progress has been made in the industry to enable hardware disaggregation and true end-to-end virtualization, especially in the radio access.
“Rakuten’s biggest advantage is its people and work culture. We are not a telecommunications company – we are an IT company with highly skilled IT engineers, and that is a huge advantage,” he told the audience of engineers and tech leaders. “Our IT organization understood and mastered virtualization and container technologies years ago. Taking the same concept of how you run an IT-centric organization to telco has been talked about but never been realized; however Rakuten Mobile Network will be 100% virtualized and fully automated. Our Radio Access is completely virtualized and running as VNF (virtual network functions) on a horizontal private cloud, which is a very big thing in the industry that we’re in.”
Edge computing is another area in which Amin believes the industry is lagging behind. The technology allows data to be processed in the vicinity of where it is created rather than sent across long distances to be processed in the cloud. “The concept is simple: If we push content closer to the user, the user can access the content faster and more easily. That’s the whole idea of latency.”
“Though many Mobile Edge Compute technology proof of concepts have been completed, I don’t believe any telecom company has realized large-scale MEC in their networks,” he explained. “The first implementation of true mobile edge computing will also happen at Rakuten. What that means for the end consumer is faster, almost zero latency to access applications and content.”
Leading the way in 5G networking
Rakuten has also been making headlines in Japan with its forays into 5G innovation, in partnership with firms such as Nokia, Altiostar, Cisco, Mavenir, Intel, Qualcomm, Quanta and NEC. According to Amin, deploying “true” 5G is an integral part of Rakuten’s mobile journey.
“What does 5G transformation for Rakuten really look like?” Amin asked the audience at the Conference. “If you look at any traditional operator, both inside and outside of Japan, it’s actually a very unnatural process to upgrade to 5G. They have to completely virtualize their infrastructure, they have to deploy new core architecture, they have to deploy new radio access. In Rakuten’s world, the entire core technology, including our Radio Access Network, is fully ready for 5G.”
The fact that Rakuten, unlike existing telecommunication companies, has no outdated and legacy infrastructure to maintain is a significant advantage. “We don’t have to worry about building and transforming our network from 3G or 4G to 5G. From day zero, Rakuten network is 5G ready.
At the same time, Amin doesn’t consider the 5G services that other telcos are launching to be “true” 5G. “If you truly want to offer functionalities and capabilities like network slicing into this new architecture, you must deploy standalone 5G core, which Rakuten is doing.”
An evolving industry
“What we’re excited about is that this journey of transformation is not just going to be felt in Japan. This is a world-first implementation of a true end-to-end cloud-native network,” Amin told the conference attendees. “The world is changing for traditional telecom companies.”
For Amin, a changing industry means nothing but good news for the general public. “Who will benefit from all this disruption? It’s the consumers in Japan.”