On July 12, 2022, Rakuten Symphony and umlaut, now part of Accenture, co-hosted a one-of-a-kind webinar providing critical insights into Rakuten Mobile's open, software-centric, and cloud-native approach to building future-ready mobile networks; a disruptive approach that shifts the center of gravity from hardware to software in Telecom. This allowed Rakuten Mobile to achieve 96% 4G population coverage on its network in Japan about four years ahead of schedule. It also contributed to a 40% lower Capex and up to 30% lower Opex price point.
"In a recent umlaut study comparing mobile networks in metropolitan areas all over the world, Rakuten Mobile’s network in Tokyo outperformed the majority of mobile networks. It achieved a score of 945 out of 1,000 – an improvement from 920 the year prior. The networks were benchmarked across key parameters such as Coverage, Speed, Latency, and Quality of Service.”
Providing a compelling and detailed look into Rakuten Mobile’s Open RAN network in Japan and how its performance stacks up globally, here are some key topics that will be highlighted as you read further:
● Real-world network performance comparison – Traditional network vs. Rakuten Mobile’s network model in Japan
● Key trends in Open RAN and cloud-native technologies
● International score comparison based on latency, speed coverage and quality of service
● How the future of 5G and beyond is being decoded with a software-based cloud-native model
Let's dive in!
Each year, umlaut comes up with a detailed study providing technical analysis and comparisons between network performance and capability of each mobile network. Today, more than 200 mobile networks in over 120 countries are being evaluated by this unique scoring methodology. As the report becomes a de facto industry standard, Paul Black, VP of Global Product Marketing at Rakuten Symphony, recently moderated a webinar that dove into the details of how Rakuten Mobile achieved high network performance ratings in this year’s 2022 umlaut Open RAN audit report.
Sharad Sriwastawa, CTO, Rakuten Mobile and Hakan Ekmen, CEO Telecommunication, umlaut, featured as the presenters for the session. Front and center in the discussion was the role of Open RAN, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Automation in driving the next wave of disruption in the telecom sector.
At present, Rakuten Mobile has 275,000 cell sites managed by 250 people, with 4G coverage of 97% of the Japanese population.
In April 2020, Rakuten Mobile launched its full-scale commercial service on the world's first Open RAN network. This open, software-centric and cloud-native network architecture allowed substantial reductions in capital investment and operation costs, thus enabling comprehensive communications services combining a flexible service plan and cutting-edge technology for customers.
"To manage all these network elements, operators must think in a cloud-native way – in other words, exactly how hyperscalers are thinking."
-Sharad Sriwastawa, CTO, Rakuten Mobile
The Rakuten Group has 70+ businesses and 1.6 billion members globally. As far as the mobile business is concerned, the company's MVNO service started in 2014, and for the MNO (Mobile Network Operator) business, the spectrum was allotted in 2018. That was when a technology choice had to be made before entering as a challenger in a mature market like Japan. The top three priorities were to reduce the TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) while being future-ready in terms of 5G and 6G. Next up was project speed since the entire Japanese population had to be covered. Lastly, the company needed to be at par or better than incumbents in terms of network performance. Considering the need for industry innovation, internet democratization, and a changing geopolitical situation, Rakuten made its way to disrupting the global telecom landscape.
"I must emphasize how powerful the results are proving that in just a couple of years, Rakuten Mobile could achieve the same result as traditional RAN vendors. 945 is a very strong score."
-Hakan Ekmen, CEO Telecommunication, Umlaut
There were many challenges faced during the initial stages of this transformational journey. In early 2019 daily software updates had to be made on the network, something which was almost impossible to do in a traditional network. There was no defined playbook since this was a unique industry-first approach to building cloud-native mobile networks. The team was in a complete CI/CD (Continuous integration and Continuous delivery/Continuous deployment) cycle all the time.
The three things that helped the team overcome every challenge were Rakuten’s values, a diverse, incredibly talented team in Japan and India, and a unique software-centric approach.
The last-mile customer is never concerned about the technology that is being deployed. The top three things that concern them are: What is the network speed?, how is the Coverage & Quality of service? and lastly, cost-effectiveness in some cases. From a service provider perspective, the real benefit that Open RAN provides is the reduction in TCO (Total Cost of Ownership), diversification of the supplier ecosystem, network automation and unlocking of newer revenue opportunities. These cost savings can then be passed on to the last mile customer, something that was accomplished in Rakuten Mobile’s Open RAN network in Japan.
"Open RAN is a viable alternative to traditional infrastructure. We estimated as many as 75 countries could see Open RAN become relevant. These include countries where 5G is not yet deployed, where 4G or 5G may need to be expanded, or where there are roaming agreements in play. Rakuten Mobile’s Open RAN technology that we see in Japan is showing that it is competitive, it is possible.”
Here are some of the questions that were asked by the audience during the webinar
1. Question to Sharad Sriwastawa: Open RAN does introduce operational overheads as you are now dealing with a high number of configurations and having to treat multiple fault scenarios. How can an operator manage this challenge from a managed services perspective?
"As we go towards 5G and 6G, our base stations on site will drastically increase. Today’s cities are covered with 100 base stations – 5G will require 500. 6G will require 1,000. We are talking about exponential growth. To manage all these network elements, operators must think in a cloud-native way – in other words, exactly how hyperscalers are thinking. It is a mindset…you need software people running the telecom network. Now, if you look at hypescalers, someone else is providing hardware, someone else is providing the platform, app owner is running the network without managed services. Everything is manageable and can be healed automatically. For example, OTT players today are running their operations themselves, and it all runs on a different cloud and different hardware; that’s where telecom needs to go."
2. Question to Sharad Sriwastawa: Looking towards 2023 what are the top goals and how are they going to contribute to the success of Rakuten Mobile?
The first step is to have 100% coverage in Japan both in terms of population and area. While at present we have 97% population coverage in Japan, one of our initiatives towards making this a reality is our investment in AST SpaceMobile, which is a satellite company. This will help support mission-critical use-cases, rural connectivity, and overall coverage enhancement in metropolitans. Next is the 5G expansion followed by further cloudification, better utilization of the transport network and more focus on enterprise and business customers.
The success that was achieved by Rakuten Mobile in Japan is now being made ‘generally available’ for greenfield and brownfield operators globally with Rakuten Symphony. This network transformation will enable service providers globally to launch and operate advanced mobile services in a cost-effective and timely manner, without compromising network quality and security.
A playback of the webinar, hosted by Rakuten Symphony, is available on-demand to view. Go deeper into the conversation, hear perspectives on attendee questions and learn more about how Rakuten Mobile achieved its ground-breaking performance. Click on the link to watch the on-demand webinar.