Interview with Rakuten’s Tareq Amin

Tareq Amin is CTO of Rakuten Mobile and CEO of Rakuten Symphony. He was interviewed by Fierce Wireless’ Senior Editor Diana Goovaerts on September 8, 2021 at Fierce’s Open RAN Summit. Amin talked about the evolution of Symphony – Rakuten’s new company that packages and resells all its mobile technology to other operators.

This transcript was lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Fierce: One of the things that you guys did recently was launch Symphony. Can you tell us a little bit more about Symphony and maybe even just some early findings? What pieces of the software stack that you're offering have garnered the most interest?

Amin: Diana, I think to understand the reasons of how and when we decided to establish Symphony, let me just share a little bit of the history of how we got to where we are today. Obviously since 2018, we decided to take an approach in building Rakuten Mobile with a completely software centric architecture driving disaggregation on radio that was extremely vital. We really did not think of any other alternative to meet our financial objectives from both capex and opex. We built a cloud-native architecture end to end for all network workloads. There is absolutely no proprietary hardware in our implementation.

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During the construction phase and the deployment of this architecture, I clearly remember talking to our chairman and CEO and telling him, "You know, I have this feeling that we are sitting in an absolutely amazing opportunity to take what we have done in Rakuten Mobile, package it as a platform, put the lessons learned that we went through over three and a half years of hardening experience and running, managing, deploying a virtualized mobile infrastructure and offer this platform to the world.

Thus, Rakuten Symphony came about, and Rakuten Symphony encompasses many assets of the various intellectual properties that Rakuten built or acquired during the last few years. If you look at this new entity, it encompasses the entire Rakuten communication platform, which entails five business units, the unified cloud, the network functions, which includes the acquisition that we have done of Altiostar, the intelligent operation, which we think is absolutely vital to the success of the future platform architecture. Our digital experience platforms and then the ecosystem of Rakuten, which is the internet and ecosystem services that we want to offer on top of connectivity. The areas that really attracted a lot of people around Rakuten and Symphony.

Of course, it is about open RAN. I always said open RAN without the right framework of automation is really an incomplete story. What Rakuten Symphony offers in terms of open RAN, as well as our intelligent operations software stack, which includes a new architecture for an observability framework, a new architecture for service assurance and a new architecture for digital workflows, tied together with open RAN and the various CNF set already deployed is where we believe the future is heading. This is the area that for sure attracted a significant attention from the global community and telecom.

Fierce: Are you able to share any numbers or indicators of early interest from other operators in using Symphony? Are you in discussions with a handful, a dozen, tens of operators around the globe?

Amin: Actually, it's a lot more. I personally will tell you, I had calls with various CXOs of over 75 mobile operators and we of course had a discussion, not only with the CTO of the mobile operators but also their CEOs and various business units. Because this is what we believe Symphony is offering: Is a fundamental transformation on technology, on business model, combined with our digital internet assets. We think it's a story at least worth to be heard from our future customers.

Our entire focus as we started to materialize Rakuten and Symphony to focus on getting Rakuten to be built in another geography: that is absolutely critical for this accessible open RAN architecture. We had amazing discussions with several Tier 1s, lots of startups. Diana, I will share with you probably one of the most exciting things for us in Rakuten is the announcement about Rakuten and Symphony and RCP being awarded the largest open RAN contract in the heart of Europe, in Germany, working with 1&1 AG.

It is an amazing breakthrough for Rakuten and Symphony. There is no better place to do this other than Germany. We're very, very thrilled, honored and excited to have done this in the early inception and creation of this platform group.

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Fierce: Very briefly, how close are other operators beyond 1&1 to adopting Symphony?

Amin: You know, what I notice which is really, I would say amazing, good news that is happening. If I tell you in 2018, I noticed that the remarks about what we were doing is... Mostly was, okay, this is fascinating what Rakuten is doing, but too much risk. In some cases, a lot of skepticism, whether this will work or not. As years progressed, as we continue to focus on delivery and results and materialization of this architecture highlighting its advantages to the larger ecosystem. I also saw the positiveness coming about from my colleagues and the entire ecosystem to support what Rakuten is doing. It went from, it's an interesting to watch project to something that really has validity. I am feeling thrilled and excited that operators now are committing to this journey.         

The Open RAN forum is becoming stronger. The desire to do what we have done and the will is absolutely there. I think we have an amazing momentum. Not just as Rakuten but the industry as a whole, to finally change the old architecture in a new world, in which elasticity, resiliency and cloud are the essence and the DNA of how you build telco workloads. I'm feeling extremely optimistic, and the early signs about the interest and the adoption of this is absolutely phenomenal.

Fierce: Okay. It sounds like nothing concrete just yet. I just wanted to ask because between what you've done with Symphony and then the Altiostar acquisition, it does seem like Rakuten may be trying to position itself as a vendor rather than an operator. Are you more focused on the vendor side of things now than you are on the operator side of things?

Amin: You know, Diana, I said in many interviews before that if someone asked me, "How would you describe Rakuten?" I said, “I don't think we are a mobile operator." Rakuten is an internet company with over 71 groups that have OTT applications. We are an OTT provider that went into connectivity. I think our culture and DNA is probably one of the reasons that allowed us to innovate, to think outside of the box to deliver on a breakthrough architecture for our mobile network.

We think Rakuten Mobile is a really amazing real-life lab if you will. To gather and harness ideas of how you build platforms for the future. I would like us not to be thought of as a vendor. I would like us to be thought maybe the un-vendor-like company that is going to deliver a breakthrough software architecture for connectivity and internet services. While a mobile business is important, it is critical for our ecosystem services in Japan, but it's also a fertile opportunity to learn to experiment and to deliver breakthrough technologies for our platform businesses.

We think this is absolutely complementary, and I think it's important for people to recognize that we are not necessarily a traditional mobile operator. That the internet services and the ecosystem is what drove our decision to enter mobile operation in Japan and now taking all this experiences and packaging these internet services and the connectivity layer under a new platform company. It presents a remarkable opportunity that we thought we shouldn't miss on this.

Fierce: Okay. We have a couple minutes left, and I do want to dig into your experiences as a mobile operator. Rakuten is regularly held up as an example of a successful real-world deployment of open RAN. One of the key differences in your case is that yours was a greenfield build. Can you talk a little bit about what obstacles you encountered that a brownfield operator might also face and what brownfield network aspects might make a deployment harder for someone who's not a greenfield operator.

Amin: So Diana, let me share truth with you. This wasn't easy. It was absolutely not easy to do what we have done. The first thing that happened in 2018 and I remember clearly the first day on my job, I canceled the existing RFP. The RFP was going to be assigned to traditional vendors by the way and build a traditional network. The network that looks identical to every network that is being built today.

There was really a choice for us. A choice to say we need a breakthrough. We need to achieve costs and economics that is unachievable with the current architecture that existed. Regardless of whether you're a brownfield or greenfield, the first thing that you have to do is share a commitment and a desire to do the breakthrough from the current architecture to a future world. You have to have the will to move toward a world in which software is the essence of what builds these networks on top of.          

I would tell you, it wasn't simple, but for me, I had a basic recipe and the recipe was started from... most importantly, before the technology is the platform organization. Having the right mentality and mindset in the structure and organization. Oh my God, it's unbelievable. I can’t tell you how lucky I am to have a large, diverse team that comes from 53 nationalities, all working as local employees in Tokyo, in Japan, to be convicted in the belief that they could do this.

Second, no plan B. We all have been taught, prepare plan A, prepare for contingency. I want to tell you, I never thought this will fail. I had a complete belief that if we put our energy behind this idea and think positively and don't think always about the negative, we could pull it through.          

Third is simplicity. If you look at our vendor and ecosystem choices, by design we decided to simplify everything. In fact, if you look at Rakuten architecture, the assignment of vendors, I call it a one-domain architecture. We've assigned one major vendor per domain. One software vendor for radio, one software vendor for core, one software vendor for cloud. This simplicity created a much easier path to system integration, collaboration, ecosystem creation that enabled us to get through.          

Regardless of whether you're brownfield, greenfield, I think this is important. Always think about organization first, the right platform organization. You will definitely need a different skillset to build a software-driven architecture and networks, but also be convicted in the belief that you need to do this because it's the right thing and the right architecture that you should build your future foundation and telecom on top of.           

I've heard this argument many times before — brownfield versus greenfield — and I think there are a lot of similarities across the board, but I think the above reasons I have given you, was one of the key secrets of success for Rakuten materializing the deployment in Japan.

Fierce: Okay, if you're up for it, I have three rapid fire questions I want to sneak in here. We have less than two minutes left, so I'm going to do what I can. The first one is, is open RAN technology mature yet? You guys have it live. Is it mature? The second is, is open RAN even necessary? Are you doing things that you couldn't have done without open RAN or could you have done this using legacy networks and are you actually saving money by deploying open RAN? That's been touted as one of the benefits.

Amin: In terms of, is it ready? Absolutely. Absolutely. Absolutely. For us, I would say don't judge on what we tell you. Read and judge the performance of this network in Japan, as it was audited by three reputable, large companies about our quality. I think the results speak for themselves. I'll really leave it at that. I think it's absolutely there.

Is open RAN necessary? Well, my answer is simple. Do you believe that the world we live in is dominated by software and will be dominated by software as you evolve your business? If you believe that software and cloud are the right technologies to invest your energy in, I would say absolutely open RAN is a must. In terms of cost savings, Diana here's maybe the base analogy I will tell you. If you disaggregate the hardware, because that's really the key thing. If you disaggregate the hardware and you start to acquire knowledge about component pricing, you are deemed to be too dangerous because you're going to discover very positive things that nobody wants you to know about. In Rakuten and Symphony world, our branding is simple, no more secrets. Actually, in fact, the agreement that we have signed with 1&1 for the large greenfield that we're enabling in Germany, we have agreed to a complete transparent total cost of ownership. Including by the way, component pricing to such an architecture. Price efficiency is absolutely there.           

I assure you and the audience that's listening to this, that in terms of price efficiencies, it is massive, and it is not little but yet we are still scratching the surface on what is possible and together with larger ecosystem and collaboration and partnership among us as operators, suppliers. I think the world is just absolutely bright for such technology.