Chief Business Officer Rabih Dabboussi shares his most important learnings from Rakuten Symphony’s contribution to the deployment of 1&1’s network, Germany’s newest national mobile services operator and the continent’s first cloud-native Open Radio Access Network.
Rakuten Symphony and 1&1 recently made history by launching Germany’s newest 4G and 5G mobile network. Opportunities to execute projects of this magnitude are rare. This is Europe’s first commercial-scale open radio access network deployment, and the world’s second, after Rakuten Mobile’s launch in Japan in 2020.
Here are my main takeaways from the project so far.
For some time now, this concept has been much more prevalent in the world of enterprise technology. Telecom suppliers may not want to hear or accept it, but they will increasingly need to partner with ecosystem players who sometimes compete in other markets in order to succeed, particularly in the age of open and cloud-native networks.
As general contractor and end-to-end technology partner for the network deployment, bringing together over 80 partners to build and deploy 1&1’s Open RAN network was no small feat. 1&1 and Rakuten Symphony had to team up with many suppliers against whom we would otherwise compete. The associated complexity of rolling out Germany’s newest mobile network required a major mindset shift and demanded tactical soft skills as well as technical expertise that would not have been required in the rollout of a network based on a legacy architecture. This is the way networks of the future will be deployed – where 1&1 has gone, others will follow.
“Rolling out Germany’s newest mobile network required a major mindset shift and demanded tactical soft skills as well as technical expertise.”
Although we can look back on what we have achieved with a great deal of pride, with the benefit of hindsight I can say that we would have benefited from educating the industry about why 1&1 was deploying a cloud-native Open RAN in Europe. In the early days following the announcement of our partnership with 1&1, we encountered skepticism from various angles, all too often coming from dissenting voices that simply wanted us to fail. In many cases the naysayers and doubters had no reliable reference points or justification for criticizing the new tech. Most of it was founded on fear, uncertainty and doubt.
I’ve always been extremely focused on addressing a customer’s concerns and ensuring we address all their questions. Making sure a solution works and delivering on the customer's expectation has always been my top priority - that took precedence over everything else.
At a governmental and public level, Germany is renowned for its commitment to data privacy and security. This national ethos is also underpinned by continental legislation - GDPR and EU regulations aim to improve sovereignty, privacy and resiliency of customer and business data. One of the first things we committed to - and this is not typical in telecom - was a cybersecurity insurance on the project.
The decision to build a cloud-native network was one area that drew opposition and became an easy target for criticism around security. I wasn't concerned about the technology because I understand that there is no 100% bulletproof solution and technology for any digital system. However, cloud is used today for every major industry - government services, banking, aviation, oil and gas. Telecom, however, was not considered by some to be ready for cloud adoption. Those concerns have been allayed over time, but we could have done more to dispel the fear, uncertainty and doubt in the early days of the project.
In retrospect, I think we could have been more vocal and engaged at an industry level to prove that what we were doing was secure. While our engagements with organizations such as the O-RAN Alliance were productive, and we made efforts to convince key stakeholders at the European Union of the benefits of Open RAN, in hindsight I can say that we could have spent more time in industry forums, educating stakeholders and helping them understand that we weren’t there to destroy their business - we believed that telecom was changing and we only pursued our goal of shaping that change.
I take great pride in being a trusted advisor and partner to my clients, and especially so with 1&1, Rakuten Symphony’s flagship international customer. Our relationship was defined as a cooperation agreement, a partnership based on a win-win engagement that would bring value to all parties involved, all under a completely transparent framework. Being such a partner puts you in the best possible position to support a customer with their most critical decisions.
However, becoming a trusted advisor is much easier said than done, and sometimes that requires tactful pushback.
In such a complex project, there will inevitably be times where reaching a joint solution takes longer than would otherwise be the case. You always have an obligation to support your customer, but I often felt compelled to ensure they were unequivocally aware of the options at their disposal. It takes time and persuasion to show the depth and detail of your own understanding – that level of trust is not formed overnight.
On a project of this scale, there are many complex moving parts from a technical design and product side that require a lot of heavy lifting and patience. It’s imperative that you do everything in your power to clearly present them with all possible options.
The first thing that is worth noting here - telecom engineers are incredibly smart people. They have vast knowledge of very dense subject matter that is beyond the understanding of most people.
“As proven with 1&1’s mobile network, there is so much opportunity to innovate in telecom.”
However, the nature of telecom’s legacy, black-box model means they can often fall back on the support of their main supplier if they have a technical issue.
The goal posts are shifting in that respect. Engineers and technology leaders working at mobile operators now have to take much greater control over their own networks - they need to be deployed on cloud stacks and work in virtualized environments. They need to understand how Kubernetes systems work, that network functions need to evolve from monolithic systems compiled and run at scale, to a more modularized software architecture. They need to implement the same tools that are typically deployed by enterprises across every other industry.
Across the industry, there is currently a gap in that respect - telco engineers have not always needed to use certain enterprise technologies, but that is rapidly becoming the case. 1&1’s mobile network deployment stands out in that respect – it is one of the first telcos to have successfully ventured into this area. There is an immense opportunity here - as proven with 1&1’s mobile network, there is so much opportunity to innovate in telecom.
From a personal point of view, I can say that the last two-and-a-half years have been defined by a mission that has pushed the boundaries – in terms of our own ever-expanding knowledge and experience, but also the relentless energy that the project has demanded. I feel proud to have taken this journey of transformation together with 1&1. Along this journey, I have established lifelong friendships, and now call Germany – a country in which so many of my amazingly talented colleagues are based - a second home.