Japan’s Rakuten has partnered with tech heavyweights to power its fully virtualized, software-defined mobile service. The company plans to launch service later this year, with CTO Tareq Amin stating that the new network will “innovate at the speed of software and scale at the speed of cloud.”
The company reported a successful end-to-end test of its network on Feb. 12, claiming – without understatement – that its innovative architecture “is set to disrupt not only the telecom industry landscape in Japan but also the rest of the world.”
Rakuten’s competition in Japan include stalwart incumbents NTT DoCoMo, KDDI, and SoftBank.
The mobile network is designed to serve millions of subscribers based on 5G technology. It will initially use 4G LTE cell sites and WiFi to serve customers, with 5G planned for early 2020, the company said. Mobile edge computing architecture will be used to support 5G fixed wireless and low-latency services such as augmented reality and virtual reality.
Rakuten also operates in the e-commerce, communications, and financial technology sectors, with 1.2 billion “members” globally and 100 million in Japan.
Nokia announced it is providing full services to plan, manage, deploy, and integrate cloud RAN, cloud-native core technology, and several Nokia software functions to the network. Nokia Cloud RAN, AirScale radios, and AirGile cloud-native core will be part of the network.
Intel recently announced its Xeon Scalable processors running on Quanta servers and field programmable gate array (FPGA)-based accelerators will be part of the network. Cisco is providing core network software to the venture and Altiostar is providing its RAN technology.
Mumbai, India-based Tech Mahindra opened a 4G and 5G SDN lab in Tokyo to also support the effort. The Rakuten Cloud Innovation Laboratory will be used to test RAN, mobile edge, evolved packet core (EPC), virtualized core, and business and operations support systems (BSS/OSS). DevOps principles will be used to test and deploy new features.
What are the Chances?
Despite Rakuten’s roster of major partners and its ambitious goals, one analyst questioned how well the company’s virtual mobile network concept will work in the real world.
“Rakuten’s deployment is not close to mainstream and you could almost call it a one-off,” said Chris Nicoll, an analyst at ACG Research. Nicoll explained that Rakuten is creating a greenfield network, which is a rarity these days. “I’ve yet to see any mainstream operator able to use virtualized solutions to replace legacy installations,” he said.
Rakuten has a large number of e-commerce cloud sites built with high-speed fiber connections in Japan, which bodes well for its success as a mobile operator, but won’t be easy to replicate anywhere else. “That’s a very unique situation,” Nicoll said.
Once Rakuten is able to get its mobile network up and operating, mainstream operators will be able to see what parts they can copy for their own networks. Still, getting the Rakuten network to work “is not a trivial thing by any means,” Nicoll added.
“The question is whether this deployment can move from applying to 1 percent of the networks in the world to 20 percent or 30 percent. Those numbers move the needle,” Nicoll said.