Cisco installs 4,000 edge nodes for Rakuten’s wireless network

BARCELONA—Rakuten seems to be everywhere, all of a sudden. This is the e-commerce company that’s building a greenfield wireless network in Japan. The other day in Denver, I heard a commercial on the radio with the announcer spelling R.A.K.U.T.E.N. My ears perked up. Really, the company is advertising its e-commerce site in the U.S.? Then, yesterday in Barcelona, I was strolling past a store in the Gothic section of the city, and all the T-shirts in the store said “Rakuten.” Apparently, the company is a big soccer sponsor in Barcelona.

So of course, who would be featured prominently at Cisco’s media gathering on Sunday night to kick off Mobile World Congress 2019? Rakuten, of course.

Rakuten’s CTO, Tareq Amin, said at the gathering that the company’s new wireless network shows that “telco can live in the cloud.”

He said when the company started thinking about building a wireless network, it considered the option of selecting traditional designs. And he said that the telecom industry, in general, doesn’t always reward innovators. Nevertheless, the company decided to build a greenfield network that uses more software and virtualization.

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Rather than choosing a “traditional” network vendor for its radio access network, Amin said Rakuten chose Altiostar Networks. And in fact, Rakuten recently announced a strategic investment in U.S.-based Altiostar, which will be completed subject to approval by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States. Amin said at the time of the Altiostar announcement that “the whole Rakuten team is looking forward to working closely with Altiostar to take a leadership role in driving RAN virtualization and to bring disruptive innovation to the mobile industry.”

As far as its work with Cisco, Rakuten hired the vendor to build its network functions virtualization infrastructure (NFVi) with 4,000 edge nodes. In addition to software, Cisco is delivering routing and switching hardware. And Cisco is also the primary systems integrator for Rakuten’s virtualized telco cloud.

Amin cited a $5 billion to $6 billion investment to build the new network. And he said when this was first announced in Japan, it was greeted with skepticism. But he said “when you go to the cloud, there is no need to hit more investment.”

He was asked how this virtualization strategy could work in brownfield networks with lots of legacy equipment, and Amin advised other telcos to take a “cap and grow” approach: “Don’t invest in any more legacy, and slowly move from the old to the new.”

Speaking to FierceWireless after his presentation, I asked Amin if it was a little ironic working with Cisco but advising telcos not to invest in traditional equipment. He said, “I don’t consider Cisco very traditional anymore.”