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9 August 2021

Symphony set up to commercialize RCP as Rakuten buys Altiostar

Rakuten has created a dedicated business, Rakuten Symphony, to house the Rakuten Communications Platform (RCP), and provide a whole range of products and services for operators that want to deploy cloud-based mobile networks. As well as pre-integrated hardware and software and an Open RAN marketplace, Rakuten will offer network-as-a-service and software-as-a-service to save smaller and new operators, in particular, from the time and expense to integrate a multivendor virtualized network from scratch themselves.

Symphony will have the RCP at its heart. The platform has its first public commercial customer, 1&1 Drillisch of Germany (see separate item), and claims commercial engagements with a long list of unnamed telcos and enterprise providers, and some that have offered public support (such as Etisalat and Bell Canada). Tareq Amin, CTO of Rakuten Mobile, will be CEO of the new unit, which reflects the towering ambition of Rakuten Group to dominate the emerging Open RAN market, shaping the ecosystems and platforms, and turning that into significant commercial advantage and global influence.

Operators will be able to procure a complete pre-integrated stack from Symphony, on a purchased or as-a-service basis or they can select individual elements from network functions to radios to OSS/BSS and orchestration. The products and services will be organized into five categories (see graphic), including products and digital services, and will look well beyond the Open RAN itself.

Symphony will draw on the digital platforms that its parent company already owns, which span ecommerce, content, financial services, travel, loyalty schemes and more. it will package all the platforms Rakuten Group has created as white-label offerings that can be the basis of similar services for operators worldwide. Symphony will include a unit focused on Internet services such as mobile payments, media and gaming, and cloud storage. Amin said these digital services are the “icing on top of the cake” for operators, adding: “These are the digital platforms that mobile operators want and need to drive their next evolution on service disruption onto their customer base.”

Rakuten is also tightening its control over its own platform by engaging in close co-developments with some partners, such as the 5G core it has been building with NEC, and even by acquiring others, such as RAN automation specialist Innoeye, and last week, RAN xNF provider Altiostar.

Rakuten has paid over $1bn for Altiostar, having previously invested in the software company’s Series C funding round, worth $114m, in 2019. Altiostar has raised over $357m to date. CEO Ashraf Dahod will maintain his role as well as running the network functions unit within Symphony. Altiostar will also continue to operate out of its Tewksbury, Massachusetts, headquarters. Dahod founded Altiostar in 2011.

Rakuten is also close to completing its work on building its own billing stack, which includes customer relationship management and a scalable architecture for billing systems supporting 4G, 5G, and private 5G. It will be deployed on Rakuten Mobile by the end of this year.

The intelligent operations unit is extremely important to Amin’s vision, he said in an interview. “Without this area, our Open RAN architecture would be flawed,” he said. The deployments must go well beyond just disaggregation and lead to full automation with zero-touch provisioning and auto-healing, in order to deliver the maximum cost and agility benefits. In Rakuten’s own mobile network, Amin said, more than 70% of network functions are fully automated.

Altiostar will be central to the network functions unit within Symphony, and this will be run by Dahod. This unit will not just focus on RAN, but also on edge and core functions.

For the unified cloud unit, Symphony will support a hybrid cloud strategy rather than expecting all operators to build their own telco cloud from scratch, as Rakuten Mobile did. “We do believe that our private cloud has amazing technical merits and advantage, but at the same time we think partnership and collaboration with public cloud is necessary to offer customer choices,” Amin said.

But every time Rakuten talks in terms of maximum openness and customer choice of platform, it then dilutes the message by making clear its own bid to control the whole network. Altiostar is the only RAN xNF provider currently included in RCP, though presumably pressure from customers could open the doors to others. And in the cloud, despite the talk of supporting any cloud infrastructure a customer chose, Rakuten is clear that its preference would be to use the platform it has developed in Japan. Amin claims this cloud platform is one of the only ones in existence that has been fully tested and validated for the demanding functions of a 5G RAN, as well as core functions, at scale, and with optimal OSS stack and orchestration.

“Those things are not simple,” Amin said. “We think that there is a technical time-to-market advantage that we have on our own cloud infrastructure, but at the same time we’re also open to collaboration with public cloud companies in the near future.” He added: “To understand how to build a telco-hardened cloud turned out to be an unbelievable challenge.”

The acquisition of Altiostar will also, potentially, enable Rakuten to tap the software vendor’s client base more effectively for RCP and Symphony. “First mission and objective is to enable Open RAN into the customer base of Altiostar,” said Amin, promising that “Rakuten will now financially support that company to scale”. An obvious target will be Dish, which numbers Altiostar, along with Mavenir, among its suppliers, but has generally chosen different partners to those of Rakuten. Amin was clear that some of the Symphony elements could be of interest to Dish and he would welcome cooperation. Altiostar also works with Bharti Airtel in India, Telefónica in Europe and Latin America, and others.

Other RCP vendors include Cisco, Intel, Mavenir, NEC, Nokia, Red Hat and Qualcomm.

The next milestone would be a deployment with an established telco, where there are additional barriers and challenges arising from legacy networks and well-worn supplier relationships. “I believe we shouldn’t hide behind the fact that Open RAN will have challenges, of course it will,” Amin said. “But the beauty, once you start implementing software, is you’re going to discover the elegance of software is you can fix the problems much faster.” He agrees that it will be important for Symphony to win a brownfield contract to provide greater real world knowledge of how Open RAN and traditional RAN will coexist.

“Give us a chance and allow us to prove, not in the lab, in a production environment that for your customers that our network will deliver on a quality that will meet objectives and exceed expectations,” Amin said.

One way to attract hesitant operators, especially smaller ones, will be Rakuten’s “try-it before you buy” architecture, he said – not in a lab exercise but proving in a real network that the platform works.

Hiroshi ‘Mickey’ Mikitani, Rakuten Group CEO, said in his statement: “With Rakuten Symphony we’re bringing together our global resources to take the next important step toward offering our innovative mobile network solutions to telco operators, enterprise customers and governments around the world.”

He set an ambitious target for the size of the addressable market, which he said could be $100bn-$150bn within 2-3 years. “Now, because of tension between China and USA, the demand for new solutions for 5G mobile networks is significant,” he said. “The existing approach is too expensive for carriers… even the large global telcos are looking for Open RAN solutions and we are definitely the frontrunner in this field. I think we have a couple of years of headstart advantage at least, so this is going to be really significant”