Rakuten plays a hybrid tune with its Symphony, spies $100B+ market

Mickey Mikitani, Chairman and CEO of Rakuten Group: Picture credit, Rakuten Group

Mickey Mikitani, Chairman and CEO of Rakuten Group: Picture credit, Rakuten Group

  • Rakuten sets up a new business unit called Symphony
  • Symphony comprises all of Rakuten Group’s telco products, services and solutions
  • It will offer professional services and technology for any company or organization wanting to build an Open RAN network
  • Building on work already done by Rakuten Mobile
  • Rakuten Group CEO believes market will be worth $100-150 billion within a few years 

Having already been a telecom industry disruptor for several years with the construction of an alternative mobile network architecture in Japan and its tub-thumping to promote Open RAN as the most viable future architecture for wireless networking, the Rakuten Group has cranked up the volume and struck a new marketing note with the formation of a new business unit called Symphony that, if successful in its mission to “spearhead the global adoption of cloud-native open RAN infrastructure and services,” will drown out the protestations of the telecom industry’s status quo (and Open RAN’s naysayers).

Symphony heralds the introduction of what, in effect, is a new hybrid company for the telco cloud era: By combining all of its “telco products, services and solutions under a single global banner to offer 4G and 5G infrastructure and platform solutions to customers worldwide,” Rakuten is now a network operator, retail mobile service provider, international systems integrator (it currently has operations across Japan, the US, Singapore, India, Europe and the Middle East & Africa region) and technology vendor, all rolled into one.  

Those telco products and services include: The functionality on offer via its Rakuten Communications Platform (RCP), the cloud native communications networking platform that includes Open RAN and core software – some of it Rakuten’s own, including the Altiostar vRAN software, and some of it from third parties such as AirspanNECFujitsuRADCOMand more – network automation and orchestration tools, OSS capabilities from Rakuten-owned Innoeye and Rakuten’s cloud infrastructure; and Rakuten’s existing R&D, sales, marketing and delivery resources that are focused on the global telco segment. Rakuten Symphony CEO Tareq Amin, well known to date as Rakuten’s CTO, has stated previously that a key principle of Rakuten’s pitch to other operators will be pricing transparency, something he says is lacking in the current telecom industry. (See Rakuten takes openness up a level with 'no secrets' hardware pricing pledge.)

Hiroshi ‘Mickey’ Mikitani, Rakuten Group CEO, noted in the official announcement that “with Rakuten Symphony we’re bringing together our global resources to take the next important step toward offering our innovative mobile network solutions to telco operators, enterprise customers and governments around the world.”  

Those ‘innovative mobile network solutions’ are currently being put to work in Rakuten Mobile’s 4G and 5G networks in Japan, operations that are, so far, attracting more attention for the amount of money they are losing than for the simplified, disaggregated and autonomous functions and operational processes of which the Japanese operator is so proud: It’s still early days, but there’s no doubt that Rakuten Mobile still has a lot of milestones and targets to hit before it can claim commercial, strategic and technical success.

In the meantime, its model is attraction a lot of attention and admiration around the world (as well as plenty of scepticism). 

And in classic bullish fashion, Mikitani has not been shy about just how much money he thinks Rakuten can make from Symphony, which was announced just as Rakuten landed its first major deal to plan, build and run an Open RAN network for another network operator with RCP as the prime mobile network functionality platform. The network operator customer in question is 1&1 Drillisch, a German mobile service provider that has a 5G spectrum license but which currently does not run its own network: Its CEO has long admired the Rakuten Mobile model and, as a result, 1&1 is putting its faith in Rakuten to deliver and run what will be Germany’s fourth mobile network infrastructure and the first major Open RAN network in Europe. (See German operator 1&1 to build brownfield Open RAN network with Rakuten.)

Mikitani hasn’t stated how much the 1&1 deal is worth to Rakuten, though Nikkei Asia has reported the deal is worth between $2.29 billion and $2.74 billion over the next 10 years.

But the Rakuten CEO was prepared to predict how much business Symphony could attract in the next few years.

Talking to Bloomberg TV, Mikitani stated that there is plenty of international demand for new mobile network options including the kind of package deal Symphony is offering. “Now, because of tension between China and US, the demand for new solutions for 5G mobile networks is significant. The existing approach is too expensive for carriers... even the large global telcos are looking for Open RAN solutions and we are definitely the frontrunner in this field... I think we have a couple of years of headstart advantage at least, so this is going to be really significant.:

And what is the market worth? “In terms of addressable market, it will be US$100-150 billion in two or three years.”

Woah. Big number, Mickey! But it’s worth noting that Rakuten has stated previously that at least 16 companies have been engaging with Rakuten about RCP, including major telecom industry names such as Etisalat.

But while this is all very beguiling, one deal in Germany and a number of engagements does not mean that telcos, enterprises and governments will dance to Rakuten’s tune – a lot will now rest on whether Rakuten can deliver against its Open RAN promises in Germany, but the industry might not have to wait too long to find out because 1&1 needs to have at least 1,000 antennas up and running in its 5G network by the end of 2022 to meet its license conditions. 

And Rakuten isn’t the only company pushing the new hybrid operator/integrator/vendor model in the telecoms world – in fact, it isn’t even the only Japanese company prepping this model, as its domestic rival NTT DOCOMO has the same aspirations, as does India’s Reliance Jio. (See NTT DOCOMO spearheads new 5G Open RAN Ecosystem.)

It will be a few years before this model beds down, morphs and then either proves itself or flops. In the meantime, it will (along with a number of other pressure points, nearly all related to cloud platform capabilities) shift the tectonic plates that underpin the global telecoms industry, which is just at the start of its own seismic transformation. 

Rakuten Symphony’s opening notes have been played.... let’s see if it causes any major movements. 

- Ray Le Maistre, Editorial Director, TelecomTV

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