Rakuten is taking ambitions for exporting its own learnings and platforms to a new level, creating a new business organization, Rakuten Symphony, to incorporate options for telco operators that span digital internet-based platforms, network functions and OSS/BSS automation to cloud infrastructure and more.
CTO of Rakuten Tareq Amin is heading up Symphony as chief executive officer and in an interview with FierceWireless said the different elements can be offered on an a la carte basis, but also as a complete stack.
Having launched its virtualized open radio access network (RAN) 4G LTE network in Japan in 2020, followed by 5G Rakuten’s since made it clear it wants to extend platforms to other operators, namely via the Rakuten Communications Platform (RCP) – as a blueprint or toolkit for other operators looking to build out virtualized and open networks.
This latest move incorporates and builds on that, also bringing together elements mentioned above and expertise and knowhow from acquisitions like Innoeye for RAN OSS automation, and open RAN software vendor Altiostar, announced Wednesday.
The chart above shows the five different business units of Symphony, which is the legal entity that packages all of the platforms in order to go to market. Amin said Rakuten believes each unit is a unique business opportunity.
Parent company Rakuten is an e-commerce giant, and owns digital platforms across fintech, travel, membership loyalty and more. Symphony will house a unit focused on internet and ecosystem services, accommodating things like payment and financing, media and gaming platforms, and cloud storage, which Amin described as “icing on top of the cake.”
“These are the digital platforms that mobile operators want and need to drive their next evolution on service disruption onto their customer base,” he said. Symphony is going to start work on packaging all of the platforms Rakuten Group has created as white-label offerings.
Rakuten’s also in the last stages of building out its own billing stack. Among features it includes customer relationship management and 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 third area of intelligent operations is most key in Amin’s view.
“Without this area, our open RAN architecture would be flawed,” he said. For him, it’s about doing more than disaggregating hardware and software, but rather driving automation to deliver zero-touch provisioning and enable auto-healing to minimize complexity around field operations. Amin pointed to Rakuten’s own experience where more than 70% of network functions are fully automated, without the need for humans to run the networks.
The category of network functions coincides with the acquisition of Altiostar. More on that here and below. Amin said Altiostar CEO Ashraf Dahod will be running it as the head of the Symphony Network Functions business unit, with the goal of also evolving edge and core platforms.
For the unified cloud unit, Rakuten is going to support a hybrid cloud strategy.
“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, adding that it will be up to customers to choose what cloud infrastructure they want to enable for different applications.
Still, he said Rakuten believes, particularly for radio access, that its cloud platform is one of the only ones today that’s been tested and validated to run radio architecture, as well as core functions, at scale with reliability and stability. The uniqueness that public clouds can’t easily replicate, he said, is the OSS stack and orchestration.
“Those things are not simple,” Amin said. Co-existence with other clouds is possible and the company is cognizant of the scale and size for infrastructure that public cloud players can offer, but sees more options as a good thing.
“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.”
In terms of partners for other elements of Symphony, he said he’s also happy to work with the Ericsson and Nokia if they’re willing to sell components – noting that relationship already exists with the Finnish vendor.
Rakuten’s new Altiostar acquisition is tightly coupled for both RCP ambitions and Rakuten’s own mobile network implementation.
“I am blessed and uniquely given the opportunity that I could use Rakuten Mobile as an experimentation field,” he said, having free reign to try new technology introduction and innovation.
Disruption is a key tenant for the company so while the mobile operator will continue to benefit from Altiostar, Amin said they want to use Rakuten Mobile as a test ground before going to other customers. It’s a way to validate, he noted, that in a highly quality-sensitive market like Tokyo the technology stack is delivering results.
And in helping to go to a global market, Altiostar is a critical piece of the equation.
“The reason we have pushed hard on the radio and the acquisition of Altiostar is because we know that 70% of an operator capex goes to radio and we know this is the area we have to fix,” he said.
With Altiostar, software and automation and cloud engineering, it was a match made in heaven to Amin.
Rakuten is also fully committed to whatever it takes to fuel Altiostar’s success. The vendor already counts the likes of Dish, India’s Airtel and Telefonica as customers. For Altiostar's existing customer base Rakuten will provide resources needed to help it scale, “to make them a very large credible alternative in terms of RAN and software.”
In the U.S. in particular, Rakuten will do anything possible to support Altiostar’s mission inside Dish, Amin said.
Rakuten also thinks there are platforms Dish could be interested in, with Amin pointing to its new Symphony business entity as an expansion of ways to enable Dish’s plans to launch a cloud-native open RAN 5G network in the U.S.
“First mission and objective is to enable open RAN into the customer base of Altiostar,” he said. “Rakuten will now financially support that company to scale,” while also providing technology assets to enhance the architecture.
Dell’Oro VP and analyst Stefan Pongratz told Fierce that in general, open RAN is accelerating at a faster pace than expected, reflecting a healthy mix between what the firm categorizes as “True” or “Full” Open RAN and “Partial” Open RAN.
While supplier dynamics vary between the segments, Dell’Oro analysis “suggests Altiostar is particularly well positioned within the Full Open RAN segment,” he said.
“At the same time, we need to keep in mind that Open RAN is more of an architecture than a technology. Scale remains an important aspect to develop competitive RAN technologies and clearly this new arrangement can help in this regard,” Pongratz said of Rakuten’s acquisition of Altiostar.
Beyond financial, Altiostar also now gets immediate access to 2,000 software developers Rakuten has in its organization, increasing that scale by more than 4x overnight, according to Amin.
Besides software, understanding nuances around telecom are part of the value proposition Rakuten brings to Altiostar, with plans to build out technical capabilities and expansions on the technology group.