Japanese tech and media giant Rakuten is hoping its new customer experience centre will persuade European operators to move to Open RAN technology.
Having announced its intentions last November, Rakuten just about got it done on schedule, thanks largely to a significant injection of cash (~$2.3 million) from the Japanese state. The launch event, which we attended yesterday, featured Yuki Naruse, Director for International Policy Coordination at the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (pictured top left), which was frequently and fulsomely thanked for its contribution.
The other main speakers were (from left to right) Alessandro Gropelli, Deputy Director-General of ETNO, Scott Bailey, Head of Telecoms Diversification at the UK Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT), and Rabih Dabboussi, Chief Business Officer for Rakuten Symphony, which is the division Rakuten created to help other operators build Open RAN networks, having done so itself in Japan.
The stated purpose of the centre is to ‘serve as a European hub for interoperability testing around the viability of Open RAN in new and existing networks’, which it presumably will. But there’s no escaping the fact that Rakuten Symphony has a direct commercial stake in the broader uptake of Open RAN as, it seems, does the Japanese state.
The majority of the opening event was taken up by questions posed to the above panel by grizzled veteran telecoms hack Ray Le Maistre, who Rakuten had brought in to help run the event. Prior to that Dabboussi set the scene by stating the case for Open RAN, which mainly focused on the need to introduce new vendors into the RAN.
Naruse and Bailey did their jobs by talking up how much tech collaboration is going on between Japan and the UK, including a ‘digital partnership’ announced late last year. Naruse clarified her government’s interest by noting that geopolitical tensions have increased the need for vendor and supply chain resilience.
She was, of course, referring to the escalating aggro between neighbour China and the US, of whom Japan is an ally. The elephant in the room whenever RAN vendor diversity is discussed is that the current lack of choice is thanks largely to the fact that the US is forcing its allies to ban Chinese vendors. In a bid to resolve a problem of its own making, the US government has got behind open RAN and, as ever, its allies have followed suit.
The EU was effectively represented by Gropelli, who insisted ETNO members are keen on Open RAN, but lamented the fact that Europe is around 20% behind Japan and the US when it comes to 5G rollout. “We need people like Rakuten to make the deployment happen,” said Gropelli, but he may also have been signalling to Bailey that a but more public money wouldn’t do any harm either.
A major focus of the discussion was the security implications of Open RAN. It came down to two distinct topics – the technology itself and the previously-stated desirability of diversifying the RAN ecosystem. “There are still challenges on Open RAN security,” conceded Bailey but, at times, Dabboussi seemed exasperated at even having to address the matter.
Surely one of the points of centres like this is to address any concerns about Open RAN, which must include security. Dabboussi noted that a broader ecosystem means there are more people helping with security. But it seems reasonable to question whether its very openness makes it easier for bad actors to also access the technology.
Whether or not security is one of the major industry concerns about Open RAN, uptake of the technology by major CSPs does seem to be slower than many had hoped. While it doesn’t look like the UK chipped in to this Rakuten centre, Bailey did flag up the money his department is offering for Open RAN bright ideas, as well as the Sonic Labs initiative. He added that UK CSPs had committed to carry 35% of their traffic over ‘open’ networks by 2030 (we’re only aware of Vodafone making such a pledge), but didn’t say what would happen if they miss that target.
On the whole, the opening of this centre is a positive for the Open RAN movement and for the UK. But the increasing state involvement in every new Open RAN announcement adds to the sense that this is as much a geopolitical as a technological phenomenon. “As Japan and the United Kingdom strengthen their technological collaboration, MIC of Japan believes the opening of Rakuten’s Open RAN Customer Experience Center is truly meaningful for the evolution of secure and smart 5G in the UK and Europe,” said Naruse in the press release.
Julia Lopez, Minister of State for DSIT, was even more strident: “In the UK we are delivering a £250 million strategy to make our telecoms networks more secure, resilient and less reliant on just a handful of equipment suppliers,” she said. “I’m thrilled that a new cutting-edge centre is opening in the UK to develop solutions to this global problem, as part of our partnership with Rakuten and the Japanese Government. Together we will accelerate diverse and innovative 5G technology that will make our lives easier, grow the economy and help maintain the UK’s position as a tech and science superpower.”
How persuasive UK and European operators find all this political posturing remains to be seen. They have immediate technological and commercial needs that may be best served by sticking with Ericsson and Nokia. Governments can chuck a bit of public money into the pot every now and then but you have to wonder whether they will resort to coercion if that fails to improve CSP adoption. After all, it was their banning of Chinese vendors that created the supposed problem Open RAN claims to fix.
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