Ligado to trial Rakuten’s RCP for 5G private networks

Ligado Networks plans to take the Rakuten Communications Platform (RCP) for a spin, agreeing to co-develop a 5G mobile private network solution for enterprises using Rakuten’s open RAN approach and Ligado’s licensed L-band spectrum.

Rakuten and Ligado signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), announced Friday, with work to begin this quarter on setting a timeline for network trials and a roadmap for solutions.

The FCC last April unanimously approved Ligado’s application to deploy a low-power terrestrial nationwide network using portions of its lower mid-band spectrum to support 5G and IoT. But there’s been controversy around Ligado’s plan, including opposition from the aviation industry, the U.S. Department of Defense, and Department of Transportation with concerns about interface with federal use of GPS. Before leaving his post as FCC Chairman, Ajit Pai in January denied (PDF) a request by the NTIA to stay Ligado’s authorization.

In October Reston, Virginia-based Ligado raised nearly $4 billion in capital to help fuel its plans and put the midband spectrum to use.

“5G mobile private networks are becoming critical infrastructure for many industries,” said Ligado President and CEO Doug Smith in a statement. “Combining our know-how and licensed L-Band spectrum in the U.S. with the Rakuten Communications Platform and Open RAN infrastructure, we will create a novel blueprint for delivering new efficiencies to U.S. companies looking to deploy powerful mobile private networks that are highly secure and ultra-reliable.”

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Under the MoU, Rakuten Mobile and Ligado plan to form a strategy to speed up commercial readiness for the L-band overall among network hardware and software providers. According to the announcement, the pair will work with enterprise customers on use cases and the final technology stack to launch a private network 5G offering.  

Ligado already operates mobile satellite services (MSS) in North America and said its approach for private networks includes a combination of satellite and terrestrial connectivity.

In reporting fourth quarter earnings today, Rakuten CEO Mickey Mikitani talked briefly about RCP, a platform for overseas expansion that builds on the Rakuten Mobile base. Rakuten rapidly built out a new 4G and now 5G network in Japan, which the industry has been watching closely because of its use of cloud-native open RAN architecture. However, the jury is still out on the ultimate success.  

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Rakuten has not been shy about ambitions to export the technologies and learnings to other network operators globally via its Rakuten Communications Platform (RCP). It says Rakuten Mobile’s so-called Open RAN “playbook” and technology partners can help enterprises more easily build and deploy could-native network services quickly and at lower costs.

According to Mikitani, the company is already seeing increased sales of RCP software including OSS to clients in more than a dozen countries. He hinted that Rakuten “may have some good news to share in the near future regarding mobile networks build solely with RCP.”

Mikitani said it’s difficult to say at this stage whether the company’s mobile business in Japan or its RCP effort will ultimately generate more profits. “But RCP may generate revenue that is equal to or better than the mobile business,” he noted.

During the earnings presentation, Rakuten Mobile CTO Tareq Amin said global clients are welcoming the technology based on the operator’s open RAN approach that the company built in Japan with its greenfield cloud-native 4G and 5G network.

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Before the Ligado announcement, Rakuten had signed MoUs for open RAN work involving its RCP platform with Telefónica and Saudi Arabia’s STC.  

This year “we are aiming to sign the first RCP deal and deployment out of Japan and most importantly we are further planning to accelerate Japan network deployment and reach 96% PoPs coverage by 2021,” Amin said during the earnings presentation.

Rakuten’s presentation indicated 20 potential customers in the U.S. for its RCP.  

“We have driven the discussion in the telecom world on the necessity of Open RAN architecture and unlocked the mystery of radio. Not only did we build the 4G/5G network with O-RAN, we also delivered with performance and quality,” Amin said.