Rakuten’s Open RAN Journey Towards a Software-Centric Future

Explore the pioneering pathway of Rakuten in the telecom industry, navigating through Open RAN and a software-centric approach. Discover insights into how openness, transparency, and innovative mindsets are reshaping connectivity and uncovering new possibilities in the realm of 5G, network scalability, and global standards. Join us as we delve into the future of telecom, where Rakuten, Open RAN, and a new era of technological advancements converge to redefine the industry.

Introduction: Navigating Through Generational Shifts in Telecom

Geoff Hollingworth, a software developer turned telecom expert, has traversed the evolving landscape of the telecom industry for the past 30 years. His journey, which began in the era of 2G, has now propelled him into the 5G epoch. Recently, he transitioned into the role of CMO at Rakuten Mobile and Rakuten Symphony.

Open RAN: Rakuten Braving the Waves of Skepticism and Innovation

Back in 2018, when Rakuten Mobile initiated its journey, there was substantial skepticism regarding the readiness of Open RAN. Geoff underscores the fundamental truth that technological readiness is a perpetual motion – every established technology is on the brink of being succeeded by the next iteration. From 2G to 5G, each generation has witnessed this cycle. Tareq Amin’s decision to steer Rakuten Mobile towards Open RAN and a fully cloud-native virtualized direction in 2018 was met with skepticism. The message here pivots not on readiness but a willingness to venture into uncharted territories, which while challenging, can also be exceptionally rewarding. Over four years, Rakuten Mobile has not only created 90% coverage and instituted 275,000 cells but managed to operate these with a surprisingly lean team of 250 individuals.

Rakuten: Unveiling the Potential and Success of Cloud-Based Network Management

Operational success for Rakuten Mobile is manifested through an accelerated rollout of an expansive number of cells and astute network management with a minimized team. The ‘SIM world software platform has been pivotal in demonstrating that cloud-based, fully virtualized, and software-centric mobile networks can indeed be effectively implemented. This is especially true in densely populated markets like Tokyo. The ensuing phase focuses on amplifying subscriber growth, exploiting data, and exploiting the programmability of the network layer. Rakuten Mobile anticipates unveiling the merits of holistic cloud operation, encompassing both efficiency and an enhanced top-line experience.

Greenfield Opportunities in Existing Operations

Contrary to common dialogues suggesting that strategies like those adopted by Rakuten Mobile are only pertinent to new builds, Geoff and his team discern existing operations and operators not as a ‘brownfield’ but as a collection of ‘greenfield’ opportunities interspersed with existing businesses. All of these facets are ripe for modernization. A discerning, phased approach is applied to the modernization of existing infrastructure and operations. Geoff anticipates that some present operational facets will remain pertinent for another decade or even longer. The aim is to expeditiously transition segments that necessitate change and cultivate a new operating model and growth trajectory. Thus, it necessitates steering through a diverse business landscape and challenges, utilizing apt tools to meet these evolving needs.

These insights provide a peek into the calculated risks and strategic methodologies that have propelled Rakuten Mobile into its current position in the telecom industry. With a focus on innovation, adaptability, and a willingness to explore uncharted territories, Geoff highlights a pathway that, while not without its challenges, offers substantial rewards and sets the stage for the next era of telecom operations.

Navigating Through the Hype and Productivity Dilemma

Geoff emphasizes that hype, in any context, is not productive. The industry must divert its discourse from this high-level religious war and initiate more intelligent conversations focused on achieving desirable business results and outcomes. The objective should be to align with other modern digital service providers, maintaining relevance and agility in the market. While Rakuten Symphony and Rakuten Mobile have navigated a challenging journey towards embracing new telecom technologies, Geoff underscores that it’s imperative to dissect the conversation into specific problems and explore innovative solutions to address them in a way that brings different outcomes.

Openness and Transparency in Solutions

In Geoff’s view, being ‘open’ is not about maximizing the number of vendors but maintaining transparency and openness about the solutions being provided. The previous generations of mobile tech have become increasingly opaque, delivering highly integrated solutions from a limited number of suppliers. This limitation in the supply chain and innovation stagnation in the telecom industry is due to the closed and opaque nature of previous tech generations. With open interfaces, there is an opportunity to reimagine solutions and introduce new thoughts and businesses, providing coverage through different radio vendors and managing them in a uniform manner, thereby ensuring scalability.

The Crucial Role of Standards in Telecom

Standards play a pivotal role in the telecom industry by creating a global market and ensuring interoperability, thus fostering confidence and allowing the development of new technologies. While standards are imperative, they should not hinder the progress of the industry. In the software layer, architectures such as those in Rakuten Symphony can manage discrepancies across different supply chains and manage standard evolution without necessarily being the answer or providing customer value.

Rakuten’s Key Insights: From Hardware to Software

Two key insights emerge from the discussion. Firstly, the center of gravity shifts from hardware to software, transforming the business into a software-centric entity. Secondly, while deploying an open RAN base station may require an artist, scaling it to 1 million cells necessitates software and industrialized automation platforms. The secret to success in open RAN lies not in deploying the first base station but in understanding how to automate the process to facilitate scaling without proportionally increasing personnel and system integration.

Conclusion: Adopting a New Mindset for Telecom Evolution

The most crucial aspect of the change process that telecom must undergo is adopting a completely new mindset. For Rakuten Mobile, implementing open RAN was a conscious choice, driven by financial constraints that made the traditional path unviable. The telecom mindset needs to shift from “I don’t think I can do this” to “How can I do this?” to engage with the accelerating technology landscape emerging around us. From a skillset perspective, the focus should be on software and data, energizing the next generation of talent to understand that their vital role is to implement the connectivity infrastructure that will power the next generation of society. Achieving this, while allowing them to develop their software skills into platforms that create operational efficiency and platforms of growth for countries, will enable the telecom industry to become something that is essential for everyone on the planet and can also be a very successful business.

 

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