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MWC 2019: The Cisco and Nokia tech behind Rakuten’s mobile network

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(Image: Corinne Reichert/ZDNet)

Japanese online marketplace Rakuten has made the surprise announcement that it will be launching its own mobile network in just eight months, thanks to hardware and software from tech giants Cisco and Nokia.

The Rakuten Mobile Network, which will launch in October, will be the first fully virtualised, cloud-based mobile network in the world.

Speaking with ZDNet at Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2019 in Barcelona, Cisco global director of Mobility and 5G Bob Everson said the rollout will utilise his company’s virtualisation architecture.

“They have a really nice approach,” he said.

“It’s a greenfield build, it’s brand new, so they have the benefit of being able to decide how they want to do this from scratch, and so a very innovative approach where it’s all a completely virtualised, cloud-based network.”

Cisco, which also announced its Unified Domain Center (UDC) at MWC as “the bridge between DNA and mobile”, is lending its routing and switching hardware, software, and services across its cloud, IT, and service provider portfolios to the Rakuten build-out.

The networking giant is also providing its experts from engineering, security, operations, and multi-vendor systems integration.

Once deployed, the network will include a fully virtualised network with multi-access edge computing; software-defined networking; centralised and regional datacentre capabilities; and full service and infrastructure automation.

Rakuten Mobile Network CTO Tareq Amin said his company’s network will be “software powered and automated from top to bottom”.

“With this design approach we mapped out with Cisco and a careful selected vendor ecosystem, we believe we can offer high-value services at more affordable costs, helping our customers to share the true benefits of cloud innovation,” Amin said.

According to the Amin, this virtualised, cloud-based approach is going to save his company at least 35 percent in opex compared to traditional mobile carriers.

“Normally, RAN is somewhat of a monolithic system that’s deployed out there with the software and hardware integrated, and as we move towards virtualisation, the industry is refining a path to get there,” Everson explained.

“It’s a completely virtualised network based on Cisco telco cloud, Cisco orchestration.”

Read also: MWC 2019: Google Stati/on, Cisco team up for global connectivity initiative

Everson said that when Rakuten first announced its intentions to build a mobile network, many in the industry didn’t know it would work.

“Now what we’re showing is that all they have to have out at the cell site is basically the radio and the antenna equipment,” he said.

“None of the real processing happens there, and so all they need is a construction person to go out there, not the higher-level technician, but just the construction person to hang the antenna, plug it in, and it’s literally plug and play back to the network, so they plug that cable in, it goes back to the OSS and the OSS says, ‘I know you’, kicks off our orchestration system, which pushes the RAN software out to an edge cloud node — they have 4,000 edge cloud nodes, they’re all built on Cisco virtualisation technology  — pushes the software out there, brings up all the radio software, and connects to the antenna and fires up the network, and we actually have it doing it in a couple of minutes versus days of coordination.

“Rakuten is way beyond a proof of concept, it’s a real live network that they’re aggressively moving forward with.”

The mobile network will also be 5G ready, according to Cisco, with 5G-enabled IPv6 transport and mobile backhaul.

Nokia CTO: ‘Is the future of web-scales mobile networks?’

Nokia is providing the radio hardware as well as the end-to-end system integrator for Rakuten, Nokia CTO Marcus Weldon told ZDNet in an interview.

“Because they don’t have any cell sites of their own, they decided to go straight to a cloud-native RAN instead of going with the conventional one where you put the baseband at the bottom of the tower,” Weldon said.

“They lease tower space to put radios up and then backhaul, but they didn’t want to use the cabinet, the baseband, so they’ve gone for cloud native, which is a first.”

Nokia is also working with Rakuten on 5G, but he said it will all be LTE for now.

According to the CTO, the most interesting part of the Rakuten story is the transition of a web-scale company into the mobile network space.

“They’re in the radio business to allow them to complement their web platforms. So they’re a web-scale, but no web-scale has ever built a mobile network before,” he said.

“Is the future of web-scales building mobile networks? Rakuten is the first one that is a web-scale who’s building a mobile network.”

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