Success sometimes breeds skepticism. As Rakuten’s world-first revolutionary, Open RAN mobile network continues to roll out in Japan, the company’s progress has sparked interest and raised questions around the world.
Does the software-driven network work in cities? Will it slow down adoption of 5G-fast service? Since it depends on multiple vendors and off-the-shelf components, does it ensure security? And perhaps most importantly, does it really cut costs?
Recently, European telecom regulators invited Rakuten Mobile CTO Tareq Amin to offer some answers about Open RAN at the flagship IIC/BEREC Telecommunications & Media Forum that attracted some 400 European regulators and policymakers.
Platform architecture embracing cloud
Instead of an expensive, traditional, vertically integrated network with a single vendor, Rakuten Mobile aimed to build what Amin described as “destructive platform architecture, built on the merit of security, diverse supply chain, hardware disaggregation and embracing cloud.”
Today’s mobile networks require hardware updates at the mobile base stations to improve performance and the user experience. “In our network, upgrades are done through software,” Amin told host Dan Sjöblom, Director General, Swedish Post and Telecom Authority. The result: A remarkably flexible network that is autonomously maintained and upgraded with minimal support from engineering teams.
Cost savings; Urban rollout
Bottom up, mix-and-match open RAN also lowers costs over traditional vertically integrated networks; that’s 30 to 40 percent savings for present 4G technology and up to 50 percent savings for next-generation 5G networks. Rural regions have finally become economical to connect.
Rakuten Mobile’s unique mobile architecture works well in dense cities, too — “we have rolled it out in Japan’s biggest cities, Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka and by the summer of 2021, we will be at 96% coverage of Japan’s population, about five years ahead of schedule,” said Amin. Rakuten Mobile also launched its 5G service in 2020 and is currently expanding network buildout across Japan.
Supply chain transparency allows greater control of security
At the IIC/BEREC Telecommunications & Media Forum, many of the regulators’ questions concerned security. The assumption may be that a single system built by a single vendor is safer than one composed of parts from multiple vendors. In fact, Amin noted that the opposite is true.
“We have rolled it out in Japan’s biggest cities, Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka and by the summer of 2021, we will be at 96% coverage of Japan’s population, about five years ahead of schedule.”Tareq Amin, CTO, Rakuten Mobile
As an open system, it is easy to switch out any troublesome or risky equipment with other equipment from safe sources. With supply chain transparency — Rakuten Mobile knows what is going into its network. Our network was built with security in mind from the start. “We have no black boxes,” Amin said. “We have 100 percent visibility.”
Impact on European incumbents: Nokia a key supporter of buildout
For the European audience, another preoccupation is the potential impact on its two mobile infrastructure giants, Ericsson and Nokia. “We are deeply appreciative of Nokia’s support in the buildout of our new network,” Amin said of the Finnish company that made the groundbreaking decision to supply key radio architecture for the network and to work with Rakuten Mobile’s diverse group of partners.
“The Nokia team understands the need to innovate, that they must embrace the future, not the past. We believe that existing large mobile network equipment manufacturers have an amazing role to play, and an amazing contribution to make to the larger ecosystem,” Amin told the audience.
“It is an exciting moment, with lots of potential in Open RAN.”Jessica Rosenworcel, acting Chairwoman, U.S. Federal Communications Commission
Industry focused on Open RAN potential
After Amin’s question and answer session, a distinguished panel continued the conversation. While not everyone agreed with Amin, there were strong words of support. “What Tareq and Rakuten have done is absolutely brilliant and really inspiring,” said Yih-Choung Teh of the UK regulator Ofcom. Ofcom is setting up what it calls Sonic Lab to test and encourage the new technology. “It is an exciting moment, with lots of potential in Open RAN,” concluded Jessica Rosenworcel, the acting Chairwoman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission.
Rakuten agrees, and Japan’s newest mobile operator looks forward to working with European regulators, manufacturers and new industry players to make sure that the continent enjoys the benefits of Open RAN and the inevitable technological revolution beyond 5G.