Is a ‘virtualized’ mobile network the way forward for telcos?

Is Rakuten pioneering new ground for the telecoms industry?
18 March 2019

Rakuten founder and chief executive officer Mickey Mikitani. Source: AFP

The era of 5G will soon be upon us, and the technology is set to have a huge bearing on businesses, governments, and individuals the world over.

In Japan, the Tokyo-based e-commerce and internet giant Rakuten is readying itself for this new opportunity, developing the world’s first virtualized, software-defined mobile service.

Set to launch in October this year, the cloud-native network will adopt 5G system architecture from launch and it will offer end-to-end automation for both network and services.

The company believes that the reimagined network will help them shift away from reliance on dedicated hardware and legacy infrastructure. It will consist entirely of software running on standardized low-cost hardware, rather than the expensive proprietary hardware that most cellular networks depend upon.

Each based site will comprise a simplified radio antenna, a remote radio head, and a fiber connection. There is no cabinet packed with elaborate electronics, explained Tareq Amin, Rakuten’s CTO: “In my previous job, we had 571 SKUs [stock keeping units]. Today, we have four.”

That makes the network far more flexible and easier to maintain and upgrade; as simplification translates into much lower operating costs, as well as lower capital spending. The company predicts the total cost of ownership will be significantly lower than that of a typical cellular network. And although the new network will have thousands of edge data centers, it will be managed by a very small team. “The level of automation you need to make this work is phenomenal,” said Amin.

In terms of broader impact on the sector, telecoms industry analyst Chris Lewis told TechHQ he expects more traditional telecoms players to look to learn lessons from the approach as they aim to benefit from technological and ecosystem dynamics that are prevalent in a cloud-native network.

“All telecommunications providers are watching to see how this approach pans out,” said Lewis, but added that many companies across UK, Europe, and North America will be looking at how they can build a cloud-based approach in parallel with their existing networks, owed to changing consumer expectations and the tech at their disposal.

“As revenues remain flat against a backdrop of increasing demands from all customer segments and traffic doubles every 18 months, something has got to be done about the cost base of the broadband delivery options and the flexibility of the services delivered on top of this new agile infrastructure,” he added.

In a recent whitepaper from the 5G-PPP Software Networking Group, it highlighted the importance of a cloud-native approach for service providers to boost competitiveness and quickly deliver new ideas to their customers. It allows companies to build and run applications covering service architectures, infrastructure-as-code, automation, continuous integration, delivery pipelines, and monitoring tools, just to name a few.

These applications have microservices which can develop, deploy, scale and upgrade services and cloud applications are packaged in containers for greater access, scalability, and portability. This helps software service developers and infrastructure IT operations teams collaborate with one another for building, testing and releasing software updates as soon as they are ready without affecting end-users or developers of other teams.

Cloud-native applications are dynamically managed, often built and run on modern platforms such as Kubernetes or Pivotal Cloud Foundry which offer hardware decoupling critical in terms of deployment automation, scaling and management.

Of course, the shift to cloud-native mindset, especially for the telecom sector, is not easy and takes a phased approach to reap full benefits. If successfully implemented, though, the transformation could bring unprecedented speed, agility, and resilience in service development and management process.

Another benefit in the approach being pioneered by Rakuten lies in improved security, the network not reliant on a single vendor. That point is of note following the UK’s NSCS (National Cyber Security Centre) CEO Ciaran Martin’s call for mobile networks to rethink their position when it comes to cybersecurity.

“If you’ve built a telecommunications network in a way that the compromise of one supplier can cause catastrophic national harm, then you’ve built it the wrong way,” he said at a cybersecurity event in Brussels, explaining that telcos must now build networks with higher standards of cybersecurity and resilience, with ‘sustainable diversity’ in the supplier market.

Ultimately, a cloud-native approach requires a “mindset shift”. The way the Virtual Network Functions (VNFs) are designed, architected and implemented is fundamentally different. Despite that challenge, Amin is confident that Rakuten is pioneering a new direction that the global telecoms industry will follow.

“The hardware-software disaggregation is going to change this industry […] we are going to go global,” he said.