Rakuten to host Open RAN test lab in UK

  • Rakuten is to develop an Open RAN Customer Experience Centre in the UK
  • It will be targeted at operators across all of Europe and the Middle East, not just the UK 
  • The move will further strengthen the technology ties between the UK and Japan
  • But it’s not the first Japanese company to set up such facilities in the UK
  • And this is a Symphony sideshow compared with its main attraction in Germany

Rakuten Symphony and its parent, Japanese operator Rakuten Mobile, are aiming to promote disaggregated, multivendor radio access network architectures as a viable option for operators and technology developers across Europe and the Middle East by developing an Open RAN Customer Experience Centre in the UK that will open by the end of March 2023.

The centre will “offer telecom operators and industry suppliers in the European and Middle East region direct experience and testing of the latest technological advances” from Rakuten Symphony, the vendor offshoot of Rakuten Mobile, and “partners” that will help to “validate equipment interoperability, establish exhibition facilities to demonstrate the latest technologies and conduct workshops.” No partners have as yet been identified. 

According to Rakuten Mobile, it will focus on the following:

  • “Validate the interoperability of devices in accordance with specifications set by the O-RAN Alliance. The Open RAN Customer Experience Centre will validate equipment interoperability in a multi-vendor environment by performing connection confirmation verification.
  • “Establish exhibition facilities to demonstrate the latest Open RAN technologies. Create an exhibition facility to demonstrate how the latest Open RAN hardware and software – such as the radio unit, central unit and distributed unit – and next-generation mobile networks will be used to improve operational efficiency and new services.
  • “Conduct workshops and events. With the aim of promoting Open RAN technologies, the centre will hold workshops and events that introduce Open RAN-related policies, trends and initiatives to European and overseas network operators and telecommunications equipment suppliers.”

The centre is to receive unspecified funding from Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (MIC), which has an agreement with the UK government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to “increase supplier diversity in the telecom sector” and engage in “closer cooperation to solve global telecoms supply chain issues”, with a particular focus on Open RAN and 6G – see UK and Japan forge closer links on telecoms.

Rakuten Mobile has already developed two Mobile Open Innovation Labs in Japan, one at the Tokyo Institute of Technology and the other at the University of Tokyo, for telcos, vendors, other companies and academic institutions to remotely verify virtualised Open RAN functionality. It’s not clear as yet whether the UK facility will enable remote testing or verification.

Locating the facility in the UK makes sense for Rakuten as it will benefit (not just financially) from the ongoing post-Brexit technology relationship between the UK and Japan that started in 2020 with a trade deal brokered in late October (signed on behalf of the UK by a certain Liz Truss). This was swiftly followed by the publication of the UK’s 5G supply chain diversification strategy, which noted there are too few technology suppliers for 5G, that measures can be taken to “grow” the supply chain, that some “high-risk vendors” (aka Huawei and ZTE) are no longer welcome to participate in the UK telecoms ecosystem, and that others are very welcome. Particularly welcome at that time, and still, is giant Japanese vendor NEC, which was namechecked in the trade agreement talks and in the diversification strategy documents – see UK government embraces Open RAN, cosies up to NEC and Japan.

NEC has since built up its presence in the UK, opened its Global Open RAN Centre of Excellence on the outskirts of London and become one of the key technology partners for operators such as Telefónica and Vodafone as it aims to become the global telecom technology player it has long aspired to be. 

And, of course, both Telefónica and Vodafone are very much involved in the UK telecom network and services sector: Vodafone directly and Telefónica via its 50% share of Virgin Media O2 (VMO2). NEC has already embedded itself as an Open RAN partner for Vodafone in the UK (and, by extension, in other European markets too) and is one of two key partners for VMO2’s initial foray into Open RAN – see Virgin Media O2 dips its toes into Open RAN with 4G deployment.

The other key partner for VMO2 is… Rakuten Symphony, which will now be looking to use its UK  Customer Experience Centre to establish and/or strengthen its ties with Vodafone (and could become the UK’s largest mobile operator if it does eventually merge with Three UK) and BT.

But, as mentioned, this centre isn’t just about the UK – it’s being targeted at the rest of Europe and the Middle East too. Rakuten Symphony already has a significant presence in Europe, of course, as it is planning, building and will run a greenfield Open RAN 5G network for 1&1 in Germany, which should soon be taking its first steps towards the launch of initial fixed wireless access (FWA) services, despite hitting some recent rollout speed bumps

It’s the deployment in Germany that will hold the key to any success Symphony might have in Europe and the Middle East (and in most other regions, probably), as it will be the true test of Symphony’s ability to deploy a true cloud-native, open, multivendor 5G architecture for a company with which it has no ownership ties. The UK centre is an interesting and useful part of Rakuten’s international presence, but a sideshow compared with the main attraction of the 1&1 network.

Rakuten recently stated during its third-quarter financial report that it has 14 commercial customers currently and 69 potential customers in its pipeline. The rollout and subsequent operation in Germany will be the development that will help or hinder the conversion of those pipeline opportunities for Symphony. 

- Ray Le Maistre, Editorial Director, TelecomTV


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