German operator 1&1 to build greenfield Open RAN network with Rakuten

  • German mobile operator, which holds a 5G license, will build country’s fourth mobile network 
  • 1&1 opts to build an Open RAN network with help from Japan’s Rakuten
  • Rakuten to build and manage the 1&1 network
  • Rakuten Communications Platform (RCP) to play key role

German mobile service provider 1&1 Drillisch, which acquired 5G spectrum in 2019, is to build a greenfield Open RAN network with help from Japan’s Rakuten Mobile, the two companies announced today. By doing so, 1&1 will become the first European operator to commit to building a complete Open RAN-based network and add fuel to the growing fire raging under the Open RAN sector.

The German operator, part of the United Internet AG empire and which currently provides mobile services to more than 10 million customers on an MVNO basis, had stated previously (during a mobile industry summit in Berlin last year) that it planned to go down the Open RAN route to build its own network, using Rakuten as its inspiration. 

Now it has decided not only to have Rakuten as its role model but also as its main partner and contractor: Rakuten, leaning heavily on its Rakuten Communication Platform (RCP) of cloud native mobile networking elements, will build and manage 1&1’s network, the construction of which will begin before the end of this year. It will make use of the spectrum 1&1 acquired for just more than €1 billion in mid-2019, namely two frequency blocks of 2 x 5 MHz in the 2 GHz band and five frequency blocks of 10 MHz in the 3.6 GHz band.

According to 1&1, “Rakuten will take over the installation of the active network equipment and will also be responsible for the overall performance of the 1&1 mobile network. 1&1 will have access to the Rakuten Communications Platform (RCP) with its access, core, cloud and operational solutions as well as to the Rakuten partner network [Telefónica Deutschland]. In this context, Rakuten will also provide its specially developed orchestration software so that the 1&1 network can be operated in a highly automated manner.” (In May 2021, 1&1 signed a national roaming agreement with Telefónica, which enables the company to offer its customers nationwide reception during the construction phase of its new network.)

In an announcement to the Frankfurt stock exchange, 1&1’s CEO Ralph Dommermuth stated: “With Rakuten we have the world's only Open RAN expert at our side who really has extensive practical experience with this new technology. Rakuten optimally complements our know-how in telecommunications networks, data centres and cloud applications. Together we will build a high-performance mobile network that has extensive automation and agility to fully exploit the potential of 5G. Thanks to complete virtualization and the use of standard hardware, we can flexibly combine the best products. This is how we become a manufacturer-independent innovation driver in the German and European mobile communications market."

Rakuten Group CEO Mickey Mikitani added: "We are honoured to have been selected by 1&1 as a partner to build the first fully virtualized cellular network in Europe. Like 1&1, we built our cellular network in Japan with the vision to transform the industry. Through technological innovation, we have succeeded in delivering high quality cellular services at affordable prices that challenge the market. We are delighted to be able to share this experience and know-how with 1&1 via the Rakuten Communications Platform and together to create a next-generation network that sets new standards for the future of mobile communications in Germany and Europe."

1&1 says its network will be built using COTS servers and software and antennas from a variety of suppliers. “All network functions are in the cloud and are controlled by software. Complex conversions or maintenance work on the antenna base stations are therefore obsolete and can be carried out efficiently and cost-effectively through software updates,” noted the German operator. 

Underpinning and housing its virtualized network functions will be four central data centres supported by “hundreds of decentralized data centres throughout Germany… which in turn are connected to thousands of antenna locations via fibre optics. The data centres and fibre optic cables are provided by 1&1 sister company 1&1 Versatel,” also part of United Internet. 

With RCP playing a key role in the functionality of 1&1’s network, this move spells good news for the companies that have their software available as cloud native applications via RCP – those companies include Altiostar, the virtual RAN specialist that, not coincidentally it now seems, is now being acquired by Rakuten in a deal announced only hours before the 1&1 announcement. (See Rakuten acquires Altiostar at $1B+ valuation.)

The deal with 1&1 also heralds the formation of a broader global Open RAN operation within the Rakuten Group, which has formed a new business unit called Rakuten Symphony “to spearhead the global adoption of cloud-native open RAN infrastructure and services, including the Rakuten Communications Platform (RCP) by mobile network operators, enterprises and government bodies.” Rakuten Symphony will be headed up by Rakuten CTO Tareq Amin. 

- Ray Le Maistre, Editorial Director, TelecomTV

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