CxO Insight

Rakuten Symphony orchestrated MWC’s drum beat

Telecoms guru, Tareq Amin and the company he leads, Rakuten Symphony, dominated headlines at MWC, reports Contributing Editor, Annie Turner, with a slew of announcements.

Developments at Rakuten have come so thick and fast it’s hard to keep track, and they are driven by the vision of Tareq Amin, who shot to fame as the visionary CTO of Rakuten Mobile. At a press and analyst briefing this Valentine’s Day, he reiterated his vision as “cloud in everything we do in mobile and automation of everything” which, he has said, was inspired by watching the rapid progress of cloud hyperscalers and enterprises over the last decade, while telcos lagged more and more, focusing on the launch of one generation of network technology after another.

Proof of the pudding

In 2020, Amin predicted Rakuten Mobile’s totally virtualised, cloudified infrastructure with as close to ubiquitous automation as it’s possible to get would save 40% on the overall capex of the new network, plus 30% in opex. The radio segment of a mobile network accounts for 60 to 70% of capex, and hence the new operator’s use of Open RAN would contribute 60% of the overall savings.

These predictions met considerable scepticism in the industry and are yet to proven. At the Valentine’s Day briefing, Amin said that as of early February, Rakuten Mobile’s network had achieved 96% 4G coverage in Japan in the two and a half years since the build began, four years ahead of schedule. It is one of the world’s largest Open RAN deployments, with more than 200,000 cells.

While this acceleration incurred substantial costs, by the end of 2021, Rakuten was carrying very close to 90% of its data on its own network, resulting in, as Amin said, “a very, very substantial” reduction in roaming. He added, “We save an unbelievable sum of money on roaming…it’s a motivation to do whatever it takes to fast track the foundation, and the foundation is all about coverage”.

Amin said of the network “This is a mixture of 4G and 5G. Our 5G products are unique because [our infrastructure] is the only 100% massive MIMO product for sub-6 [GHz] deployed in Japan…for us it was a balance where we could ramp up customer acquisition…which incumbents can’t compete with because we don’t cap anything. It is just unlimited [usage]”. He added although the service suited light data user, “our…niche we want to live on is heavy data consumers.”

While the financial side of the argument remains to be seen – note that Q4 revenue was up by almost 48% year on year to $565 million – Amin noted wryly that Tokyo has a dense-packed population of 17 million, adding, “I am optimistic that this year we have cleared the hurdle of whether Open RAN works or not.”

Automation makes it possible

Rakuten Mobile activates 200 base stations each day. Amin stressed, “We don’t have…an army of people doing this. If we did not employ Open RAN, if we did not employ cloudification and if we did not employ automation, all this stuff would be absolutely impossible, but we treat our active base stations exactly like Wi-Fi: Wi-Fi is all about plug and play, [and] zero-touch provisioning. We learned quickly that to build these dreams and ideas, we need a massive, systematic approach to automation and the underlying systems.”

Amin commented, “The first acquisition [in May 2020] that we [did] people never understood…we acquired Innoeye because I knew that Open RAN cloud without the wrappers of automation does not achieve results.” He continued, “If you don’t have the right automation architecture, the right next-generation OSS platform…is a massive challenge. So that was my first target acquisition because I knew that this is so important.”

At MWC 2022, Rakuten continued the trend, publicising its intention to acquire the award-winning Silicon Valley start-up Robin.io, having worked with the start-up for two years. Amin said of the planned acquisition at a roundtable at MWC, “We learned the hard way not all clouds are alike. The complexity of telecom workloads, especially radio access, require predictability that public cloud hasn’t yet experienced”, and continued, “Robin.io’s cloud capability is proven to be effective for the most demanding workloads in mobile and we believe it will allow Rakuten Symphony to safely accelerate cloud-native transformation for our customers and prepare the industry for the future.”

Moving to a different key

Note his use of Rakuten Symphony: in August 2021, Rakuten Mobile announced Rakuten Symphony which was to sell Rakuten Mobile’s technology, software and expertise to other operators around the world – with Amin as CEO, naturally. The new division simultaneously announced its first customer, 1 & 1, Germany’s new entrant, 5G operator for whom it is to build Europe’s first fully virtualised infrastructure on Open RAN.

In January 2022, Rakuten Symphony was spun out of the operator and Amin announced yet another part of his vision, Symworld which was officially launched at the Valentine Day’s briefing. Amin described it as “a consolidated telco app store with all the applications you need for engineering, operation, architecture, knowledge management, learning management…no need…to go to multiple screens on multiple billing systems, and multiple subscription models.

“We are very, very excited about this and of course, the constant innovation around automation…is a never-ending process. It never has a start date or end date.” Nokia was announced as Symworld’s the sole vendor for specific mobile core products

Amin explained that, depending on size, an operator could buy and consume more than 2,000 applications and “As we looked at Rakuten Mobile, we knew we needed to stitch all of it together”, adding, “Rakuten Symphony has one massive, unique advantage…our living lab, Rakuten Mobile, is a massive, massive challenge…the ability to understand how to build systems to run at scale, how to build VNFs [virtual network functions] and CNFs [cloud network functions] that are all orchestrated and the underlying system architecture to guarantee reliability at the scale one would expect…with zero increase in headcount or operation.”

Amin said, “It proves the concept of what we call hyperscale” and said “the operational experience of Rakuten Mobile has given all our team the insight to build this beautifully elegant, orchestrated, automated system that you will never find in the marketplace today”.

To support this view, he explained that an orchestrator is only as intelligent as the systems beneath it and if those underlying systems are not fully autonomous and don’t support real-time APIs, “What’s the orchestrator going to do?,” he asks. By comparison, “You [can] purchase an integrated solution with Rakuten, in the case of Germany, your network is live in three months. How many networks you could build in three months? That’s the beauty of integrated validated systems…I’m not even happy about three months, I want to get it to seven days…to bring up the workload.”

Not only for greenfield

Although Rakuten Symphony was announced last August, the division has bookings worth $3 billion. Amin batted away suggestions that Rakuten’s telecoms activities are all about greenfield, highlighting the role Enrique Blanco, Group CTIO of Telefonica, has played in working with Rakuten Symphony, “not in a lab environment, but in a commercial environment across five markets to go validate all the hypotheses we are talking about,” Amin said.

He added, “The Symphony journey is not only about Open RAN. I can tell you today that Telefonica in certain markets [is] already consuming some of our OSS products…We are making progress in the brownfield game… I am really, really super-optimistic that Telefonica could be the breakthrough that everybody is looking for.”

In fact, Telefonica invested in Altiostar, which was Rakuten’s second acquisition, made last year. It is to be rebranded under a new business unit as network functions and “own RAN, core, edge…intelligent operations [are] all about comprehensive OSS stack – and this is [like no other].”

Then there’s AT&T. At MWC Rakuten Symphony announced that the US operator would collaborate with it to enhance network design and build solutions for operators. At a roundtable for journalists and analysts following the announcement, Amin said, “The announcement…is not just the monetary value [although] that’s important. We are learning a lot; how to manage our way through a brownfield deployment and integration point.”

He said that initial conversations with the operator’s CTO was about foundational digital workflow and planning. Amin stated, “If you don’t automate these mundane processes, then as you go upstream and say, ‘I want zero-touch provisioning’ none of that elegant stuff will work if the foundation isn’t fixed.

“The first thing we did when we engaged with him was a discovery and due diligence to find out how we integrate within the ecosystem because there is a very large complexity of integration points. The way we build these applications [in Symworld] is we have adaptors we created for legacy integration architecture.”

There was considerable emphasis at the roundtable that Symworld is not about industrialising a rigid approach – as every network in the world is unique – rather the unique selling point is flexibility, which will be maintained by keeping everything at component level and modular so users create their own environment from a menu.

Amin concluded, “the cloudification of the app store to achieve the big premise of zero-touch provisioning, autonomous operation requires building blocks: That’s what we focus on in Symworld, these building blocks.”

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