Tough times for new entrants but network automation is set to soar

Contributing Editor Annie Turner rounds up some highlights and low points of the last month in the automation market in Japan, and the US, but most especially Germany.

Rakuten Mobile, the global trailblazer in network automation, Open RAN, cloudification and softwarisation is finding life as a pioneer is tough. Its parent company, the e-commerce giant Rakuten, has racked up losses close to $5 billion in the four years since embarking on becoming a state-of-the-art mobile operator, only attracting of just over 5 million subscribers out of Japan’s population of 126 million.

Still, the long game was always to weave mobile into Rakuten group’s extensive ecosystem that cross-fertilises services, from TV to insurance and other financial services, esports and holiday rental properties. Being a customer of one service triggers discounts and deals for others, with the aim of getting customers to take more services and stay within the ecosystem, thereby encouraging customers to spend more and remain loyal.

Founder and CEO of Rakuten Group, Hiroshi Mikitani, said his company aims to bring the mobile phone business into profitability by the end of 2023.

More strings

It has other strings to its bow too. In March Rakuten Mobile launched three tariffs for business users, including unlimited in-country calls and international options; an in-bound roaming service for tourists visiting Japan; and an Open RAN Customer Experience Centre in the UK.

The Centre is a joint enterprise by Rakuten Mobile, Rakuten Symphony, Inc. and Rakuten Symphony UK, and was awarded funding by Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. According to the press statement, it heralds “a new era of British-Japanese technological collaboration and the European advancement of…Open RAN”.

1&1 deployment woes

In Germany, Rakuten Symphony is the general contractor for the new entrant network, 1&1, which intends to build Europe’s most technically advanced 5G network. It is also enduring adversity. Like Rakuten Mobile, it is a greenfield build, based on softwarisation, Open RAN, automation etc. Unfortunately, 1&1 is running spectacularly late with its deployment: the plan was to have 1,000 base stations in commercial use by the end of last year. It has three up and running, so far.

According to 1&1, the delay is nearly all Vodafone’s fault, rather than anything to do with tech teething troubles. 1&1 is leasing tower space from several providers, but mostly from Vantage Towers whose majority shareholder is Vodafone – and operator Vodafone Germany and 1&1 are rivals. In a complaint filed with Germany’s Federal Cartel Office in February, 1&1 accused Vodafone of obstructing access to Vantage’s sites. Vantage rejects the accusation and says it’s working to provide access to the 3,800 sites agreed with 1&1.

In March, 1&1 issued a statement claiming, “Deutsche Telekom, Vodafone and Telefónica are lobbying unanimously to withhold essential frequency spectrum from 1&1 in the upcoming frequency auction” on the grounds that 1&1 has failed to meet its coverage obligations.

Political hot potato

Despite these setbacks, 1&1 might still have an ace in the hole: it is the only German operator not to have equipment from Chinese vendors in its brand new infrastructure. Use on Chinese vendors’ equipment in German networks is not news, but has turned into something of a political hot potato.

Nancy Faeser

Amid accusation that Deutsche Telekom’s (DT) 2019 pact with Huawei was designed to get round US trade sancetions, Republican Senator Marco Rubio was quoted in the German newspaper Handelsblatt saying DT’s actions should “have consequences,” adding, “Germany and the companies working there should work with us and not help an opposing regime to undermine international security,” during an official visit to Washington DC by Germany’s Minister of the Interior and Community, Nancy Faeser.

Faeser said she intends to investigate ties between Europe’s biggest telco, Deutsche Telekom (DT) and the Chinese vendor, Huawei. The use of Chinese equipment was already under scrutiny by German government authorities, which is expected to ban Chinese equipment from 5G networks, with a statement anticipated in the summer.

Sieve not a DISH?

Still across the Atlantic, Dish Network, the new national entrant with a 5G network is taking a similarly innovative approach to Rakuten Mobile and 1&1 for its network. It has strong ties with Rakuten Symphony but is under the cosh too after a “cyber-security incident” that began in February. This caused a weeks-long outage that hit the company’s internal servers, corporate communications, and some Dish-owned websites and IT telephony systems. All of which meant it was unable to install services, process payments or provide customer care.

Pundits appear to be viewing this as a short-term hitch rather than a long-term disaster.

 Automation on the up

Despite these travails, the total market for network automation was $3.62 billion in 2021 and is expected to grow at 24.9 percent CAGR to reach $21.45 billion by 2029, according to Maximize Market Research – see graphic below for highlights.

Telecom Egypt opts for IBM

Telecom Egypt chose IBM to automate its OSS across its mobile, fixed and core networks to reduce the time spent on troubleshooting and fixing network-related issues. The operator intends to implement IBM Cloud Pak for Watson AIOps, on top of RedHat OpenShift, and robotic process automation (RPA) technologies.

IBM says its RPA will enable Telecom Egypt staff to automate the process of tracking network operating capacity and service quality, ending a manual process which it asserted could take at least 18 hours to complete.

Telecom Egypt MD and CEO Adel Hamed stated working with IBM will improve the quality of service it provides by reducing “the time required to monitor and repair incidents”.

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