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22 November 2019

Rakuten claims huge edge cloud, as other operators follow suit

Rakuten was the toast of this year’s Mobile World Congress with its ambitious plan to build an end-to-end cloud-native mobile network for 4G and 5G. Since then, the project has lost some of its luster thanks to delays, and reports of significant challenges with tuning up the cloud infrastructure to support the demands of a virtualized RAN.

There have also been whispers about ‘too many cooks’, and tensions between the long list of suppliers which are involved in the project, highlighting the downside of an open, multivendor approach. Some of the participants have strong 4G offerings but are not sufficiently 5G-ready for Rakuten’s timetable, sources say, and there is overlap between the responsibilities of some of the partners with integration roles.

Its suppliers include TechMahindra, Altiostar, Cisco, Intel, NEC, Nokia, Red Hat, OKI, Fujitsu, Ciena, Netcracker, Qualcomm, Mavenir, Quanta, Sercomm, Allot, Innoeye and Viavi.

None of this is surprising in a project which is setting new rules for telecoms deployment. Most operators will not implement cloud-native technology for several years at least, and while Rakuten has the advantage of cloud expertise and a greenfield roll-out, it is still grappling with untried and immature solutions and supply chain relationships.

Its original goal was to roll out 3,432 base stations by the end of Rakuten’s fiscal year in March 2020, but at the end of June 2019, the company was over 50% behind on its target, according to the reports, and that drove the Japanese Ministry of Communications to request that the MNO amended its plans to a more realistic schedule, but also put measures in place to speed up deployment.

That meant the initial launch, last month, covered only some parts of capital Tokyo, plus the major cities of Osaka and Nagoya, and the coverage and capacity are not as strong as planned on day one because Rakuten “does not have enough bases in city centers that have a high concentration of users”. It is now providing LTE service to about 5,000 customers on a trial basis and will go fully commercial in early 2020, with 5G to follow later that year.

Despite delays, Rakuten says it’s the biggest VNF operator:

Despite all this, the company claimed, on its recent third quarter results call, that it had achieved its aim of being the world’s first end-to-end, cloud-native network operator, even though it did not offer further details of its 2020 timelines.

“Rakuten Mobile has become the world’s largest virtual network function (VNF) operator across 1,400 different operators, so this has been a big accomplishment. It is no longer a hypothesis or a dream. This has now been deployed, operational, secure, and most importantly, validated for resiliency architecture,” CTO Tareq Amin said.

He also said the company is now the largest deployer of virtualized RAN technology, working with Altiostar, for its 4G RAN VNFs, and Nokia for the RAN platform. Amin said: “People said we could not do this. It is now fully operational, carrying a massive amount of traffic in the network” with full resiliency and redundancy.

Resiliency is key to the economics and quality of service Rakuten is chasing. “Cloud technologies offer resiliencies that are much better than what you find today in traditional telecommunication networks,” Amin said. “Across two of our large data centers every application today is fully redundant in an active configuration.”

Rakuten Mobile recently shut down its network to simulate and test resiliency during a disaster such as earthquake and said it was “impressed” at the recovery of voice and data sessions.

And finally, Amin boasted that Rakuten has now built “more edge locations than even Amazon has done in the United States”. In time, these will support new services for customers of the mobile network and of the parent firm’s cloud and content divisions (before deploying the cloud-native network, Rakuten had limited cloud infrastructure of its own beneath its ecommerce and video businesses). But in the first instance, the edge build-out is mainly to enhance the economics of the RAN.

Edge-focused deployment supports streamlined operations and costs:

Amin explained: “We spent most of our energy on trying to virtualize the radio access because the cost impact, and the economics, and the benefits that this will bring to Rakuten is too important and tremendous for our future growth.” The MNO has deployed macro antenna base stations that “hardly have any electronics at locations …. We have moved all of our workloads to our edge data centers. That makes things easier for deployment, construction costs are cheaper, operation and maintenance requirements are substantially cheaper than traditional networks. We think this is the future, this is how you build telecoms of the future.”

The operator has put so much of its own development and secret sauce into its cloud-native core and RAN that it aims to export the technology to operators outside Japan to generate new revenues as well as increased influence over the industry’s development of future architectures.

“The simplicity of the sites have enabled us to really achieve a level of turning on sites per day that I personally have not seen in any other telecom,” Amin said. “Almost every day, 60 to 70 sites come on air daily. So we are very confident that by the end of the year we will have about 3,000 sites on air, if not even more.”

Rakuten Mobile has also signed 4,500 contracts with site owners for access to deploy its radios and a further 6,500 deals are in process.

Rakuten is not the only operator investing in edge cloud infrastructure to support a distributed, disaggregated and cloud-native network in future – especially as those edge nodes can double up as resources to support client services like improved video quality, or even be offered wholesale to cloud companies. Telstra in Australia, AT&T in the USA, Telefónica in Spain, and many others are weighing their strategies for edge build-out and embarking on programs.

TIM and Bouygues plan edge cloud roll-outs:

The latest to discuss their plans in this area are TIM in Italy and Bouygues Telecom in France. The latter has awarded a contract to design, build and maintain over 100 5G sites, which will combine base stations and micro-data centers, across France. TPF Ingénierie has won a large portion of the three-year project but two other integrators will be involved too.

Bouygues pointed out that 5G will increase the need for data processing at the cell site, and this can often be done more efficiently at the edge, close to the users, than in centralized cloud data centers.

The framework contract covers the construction of dedicated buildings on greenfield sites, the integration of data centers into existing buildings, and the provision of modular solutions. Pierre Biller, managing director in charge of human resources and production at Bouygues, said the sites would mainly use existing fiber.

In the previous edition of Wireless Watch, we highlighted TIM’s intensifying focus on the cloud and its new partnership with Google to bolster its credentials as a cloud provider. Now it is looking to the edge, and has launched a live edge cloud in the city of Turin, in partnership with the local municipality. This will be the basis of new smart city and Industrie 4.0 services for this industrialized city.

To demonstrate the potential of the edge cloud, TIM flew some drones, securely connected to its edge nodes, safely in high-footfall areas. It plans to trial drone-based environmental and infrastructure monitoring services in Turin for applications such as river level monitoring or public safety surveillance in parks.

“The 5G Edge Cloud network guarantees very high bandwidth and low latency and allows an exceptionally large amount of data to be aggregated and processed, providing for safe digital services of an extremely high quality that respect customer privacy, as well as allowing greater agility and flexibility in the configuration of services and applications, under the typical cloud logic,” said TIM.

The operator’s growing cloud network will, in future, support its cloud-native 5G core, which it is developing with Ericsson, and its next generation disaggregated RAN.