Spotlight on Tech

How we did it: Rakuten Mobile taps power of industrialization for lean, scalable network

Geoff Hollingworth
Chief Marketing Officer
Rakuten Symphony
June 29, 2023
minute read

One of the advantages that Rakuten Symphony brings as a partner for the new era of mobile networks is the deep experience in the successes and challenges of implementing a new network model thanks to our work with Rakuten Mobile. 

Previously, we discussed the need for industrialization of MNO networks. Here, I want to share with you how we used industrialization to build out a nationwide network in Japan.  

Platform infrastructure industrialization  

Rakuten Mobile spent a significant amount of time and worked with industry leaders to industrialize its network hardware infrastructure for efficiency and standardization. This involved evaluating all hardware components needed for site installation and reducing the number of stock-keeping units (SKUs) where possible. For the remaining SKUs, we looked for ways to increase the simplicity of installation. One benefit of reducing unique hardware SKUs is the ripple effect throughout the organization. With fewer parts, Rakuten Mobile was able to better manage procurement, spare parts management, returns and other processes. 

That simplification was a first step, but it doesn’t account for the massive scale of network building. From previous experience we know that close to 400,000 people can touch a network every day while under construction. To manage this, the company digitized the process into one plan-and-build management process to coordinate all procurement processes and people coordination. This then served as a data source for the zero touch provisioning that kicked in once the equipment was connected and powered. It also provided data for the site acceptance process which the Rakuten Mobile team could manage using a smartphone app.  

At the peak of the network build out, up to 600 sites were being brought on air everyday using this method. The result is that Rakuten Mobile was able to deliver 98% population coverage as of May 2023, with radically reduced cost structures of both material costs (capex) by 40% and people costs (opex) by30%. 

Cloud industrialization 

It is possible to run all telecom workloads fully cloud-native in containers. This makes cloud software industrialization foundational to an automated network operations system and it needs to be treated with that level of importance.  

Disaggregation of radio networks causes economic problems when working with traditional enterprise cloud licensing models. Rakuten Mobile looked at this as a key to its hyperscale mantra of removing costs at scale and normalizing operations. The company has standardized on the use of Rocky Linux for all cloud servers. Rakuten Mobile estimates that by standardizing on Rocky Linux, it has removed 50% of its cloud cost structure compared to mix and match approaches. Just as important, this approach has enabled a fully automated, end-to-end cloud for mobile networks. But these cloud servers also have been used for other applications allowing the costs to be amortized across multiple services. 

Open RAN industrialization 

The foundation of the Rakuten network is Open RAN. The company has deployed over 300,000 Open RAN cells covering indoor, outdoor, urban, rural and in-home networks with equipment from more than seven radio vendors and counting. One thing we learned through this deployment is that open interfaces can create additional integration complexity for the MNO, complexity that was previously hidden inside the traditional monolithic telecom equipment provider. Industrializing this integration inside the MNO operation requires automation to manage the additional complexity, to ensure scale and consistent quality. Open RAN allows Rakuten Mobile to manage all radios as one homogeneous fleet, irrespective of manufacturer or coverage type. From a continuous operation perspective, the whole fleet can then be instrumented with the same observability and programmability frameworks. This allows higher level orders of management leveraging artificial intelligence for optimum coverage with an added benefit of reductions in system level energy management. 

Operations Industrialization 

Rakuten Mobile has structured its network operations to be managed using software and platforms and not by people and paper. With 250 employees running a network with over 300,000 cells, software runs the operations and data enables continuous business optimization for future improvements. In the Rakuten Mobile network, the first step was to digitalize all processes required to plan, build and operate the network.  

One example: Implementing zero-touch provisioning of a cell site, for example, requires automated generation of node names and IP addresses that can be inventoried and made available for subsequent service assurance correlations. Industrialization of this process means that not only is data available for service assurance, but Rakuten Mobile is able to execute this process repeatedly to speed up network deployment. 

Ecosystem industrialization 

Rakuten Mobile uses cloud-native software to plan, build and operate its network, manage the customer experience and deliver new services. Historically, the time needed to procure and introduce software was counted in weeks or months – too long for a responsive and modern network. Rakuten Mobile’s approach is to use a one-click app store for all software application types. These applications are uploaded with supporting documentation, configuration files and deployment manifests. Sandboxes are provided for application testing through a curated onboarding process. Once tested, the application is available in the app store for authorized people to instantly install in their part of the network. With this approach, Rakuten has been able to dramatically reduce software supply delay and build a lean and responsive software supply chain that doesn’t sacrifice testing.   

Automation industrialization 

So far, we’ve presented some of the automation that has helped Rakuten Mobile manage its network. Here we want to present our “automate everything” mindset as a way of industrializing automation throughout the network.  

Mobile networks are complicated and will only continue to be more complicated. Automation is the answer, and it became a mindset that was managed with discipline as a skillset and as a product by Rakuten Symphony. It helped Rakuten Mobile to manage its growth with only 250 people operationally responsible for running a network comprising more than 300,000 active cells. All of these people are software people with an “automate first” culture. To manage the automation mindset, Rakuten Mobile has developed an automation studio to simplify automation script creation and also a catalog of these scripts so that they are easily available throughout the organization.  

This post summarizes where Rakuten Mobile, guided by Rakuten Symphony, is today on its industrialization journey. But we’re not done. Industrialization is an ongoing process designed to take advantage of new automations and innovations that impact speed and scalability and turn the network into a competitive advantage. Look for more updates on industrialization improvements as we continue to grow our network services. 

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