Today, Rakuten announced that has acquired the rest of Open RAN startup, Altiostar. It already owned 67% of the pioneering vendor, and paid another $370 million to acquire the rest, at a valuation just over $1 billion. The company is adding Altiostar to its Rakuten Communications Platform (RCP) capabilities now known as Symphony, that it is selling to mobile network operators. The company also announced its first commercial customer for RCP Symphony, German startup mobile operator called 1&1. Now that RCP Symphony has expanded to include RAN, the total system is rather comprehensive (shown below).
The company shared what is included in the Symphony suite, which can be broken into five major pieces: 1) Internet & Ecosystem Services, 2) Digital Experience, 3) Intelligent Operations, 4) Network Functions, and 5) Unified Cloud. Compared to traditional telecom equipment companies like Ericsson, Nokia and Huawei, who have significant parts of their revenue exposure in the last 4 of the major pieces that Rakuten offers in Symphony. What’s different is Rakuten will be offering Membership & Loyalty Platforms, Media & Gaming Platforms, Payment & Finance Platforms, and Marketplace. Additionally, Rakuten can offer Cloud Infrastructure, similar to what Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure and Google Compute offer. We think Rakuten is taking on a lot by offering Symphony, but it has proven that many, if not all, parts already work – that’s because it has 4 million Japanese subscribers on its Rakuten Mobile Network already. That is a big endorsement.
The 1&1 deal includes the entire RCP full stack and is structured as a “Design-Build-Operate” contract. The plan is to start work “next quarter,” and all engineering is done in-house by Rakuten and the team will manage installation done by others. By 1Q22, Rakuten will be deploying commercially for 8 years, and its operation plans last 10 years. The mix between base stations, servers and network software is 70% radio access network and 30% on the rest. Hardware and software mix is 65% hardware, rest software and services. RCP provides an “open-book” approach on purchasing of hardware to its customer.
Rakuten claims it is in discussion with many potential customers and partners around the world about RCP (this includes Altiostar discussions), which include in the Americas, 27 client interactions; In Europe, 19 client interactions; in Middle East & Africas, 11 client interactions; Russia & CIS, 5 client interactions; and in Asia Pacific, 22 client interactions.
This week's MWC Barcelona 2021 had several themes; the most important was that several outsiders to the telecom industry were ever-present. The new entrants – the party-crashers - included Starlink, Microsoft Azure, Amazon Web Services, Google Compute, and NVidia. These new players are forcing change either through economics, new technology, or new regulatory frameworks, or combinations thereof. We’ll touch on the importance of these crashers and then circle back to a few other ongoing themes that continue to remain relevant in this article.
Satellite broadband, while not exactly a mobile technology, will catalyze significant changes to the mobile industry. Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite services, evangelized today by SpaceX-owned Starlink, announced plans to spend as much as $30B in building out its constellation over its lifespan. Yet, it will reach users across the globe. Elon Musk said Starlink is in beta in 12 countries, and it plans to have ½-million users in the next 12 months. The billionaire highlighted that Starlink’s ability to reach rural populations is unlike that of terrestrial players. We think the rural reach of LEO broadband is precisely why Starlink will be so important. Musk’s pitch to the mobile industry was that of a partnership – he said that Starlink is partnering with 5G MNOs to offer satellite backhaul and rural broadband services. We view satellite broadband, and later 3GPP satellite, as critical components in the telecommunications industry, and therefore we chose to write about satellite first in this article.
All three hyperscalers, Azure, AWS, and GCP, made a splash at MWC21. As a group, these infrastructure providers have already changed the way telcos operate. In fact, the hyperscalers’ architectures were the inspiration behind the decade-old telco push for Network Functions Virtualization (NFV). But, these days, hyperscalers’ operations are more than an inspiration to the telcos. MNOs are now moving some of their workloads to hyperscaler infrastructures. The evolution of these workload migrations to hyperscalers is moving in three phases, phase 1, the back-office, then phase 2, telecom core, and last, phase 3, the access layer. In the weeks leading up to MWC21, we’ve seen progress on all three workload migrations, including that on Mobile RAN. Incoming AWS CEO Adam Selipsky said at MWC that AWS is talking to “virtually every telecom operator.”
Some examples of announcements made surrounding the MWC show include:
With Open RAN capabilities come the possibility that MNOs can source various RAN components from multiple vendors. Rakuten has already technically demonstrated multi-vendor sourcing (Altiostar baseband and Nokia and NEC radios). In addition to system-level multi-vendor interoperability, in previous years, multiple semiconductor companies had been bolstering their RAN offerings (Marvell, Qualcomm, EdgeQ). Marvell had previously crashed MWC (MWC19 and MWC20) and is now a RAN supplier to Samsung and Nokia. For MWC21, we saw yet another entrant to the RAN chip market, NVidia. NVidia has received pubic endorsements from Ericsson, Fujitsu, Mavenir, and Radisys. NVidia’s current chip offering is called “AI-on-5G,” and the company’s offering starts in 2021 as an “on a server.” NVidia’s next offering is expected in the 2022-2023 era and will be an “on a card” offering. Then, after 2024, NVidia will offer its “on a chip” offering.
On April 21, 2021, DISH, the fourth wireless operator in the US market, and hyperscaler Amazon Web Services (AWS) announced plans to work together, whereby DISH will leverage AWS infrastructure and services to build a cloud-based 5G Open Radio Access Network. The DISH/AWS announcement is important because this is the first 5G Radio/hyperscaler deal – or second if you count Rakuten as a hyperscaler. We are encouraged by the DISH/AWS deal and think this represents a big step in the industry. What’s so important is that two of the three major Radio Access Network (RAN) functions will be running on AWS; these are the Centralized Unit (CU) and the Distributed Unit (DU). We see the DU running on the AWS service called Outposts as being the most critical part of this announcement, because historically this hardware has been delivered as a proprietary hardware system using proprietary semiconductors from the likes of vendors like Ericsson, Nokia and Huawei. Thus, AWS’ involvement in the DISH network serves as a reminder of the opportunity for RAN vendors to deploy cloud native RAN in future cellular network deployments.
DISH is employing a terminology it called a “Capital Light” model, whereby it reduced the amount of capital spending it requires to build out its planned national network. Key to achieving this light capital model is leveraging the capital spending done by AWS and instead leveraging what some might call an OPEX oriented model. DISH plans to launch live cellular services in Las Vegas, NV first, and then its 5G network will cover 20% of the US population by June 2022 and then 70% by June 2023 and 75% of by June 2025, and thereafter it will continue its build to “match competitors beyond 2025.” The company also plans to begin building enterprise focused 5G networks beginning in 2021.
In our follow-up inquiries to the AWS and DISH teams, we have learned that DISH is exercising an option to run O-RAN using AWS Graviton hardware plus Enterprise Kubernetes Services. Additionally, DISH has the option to use Intel based COTS based hardware in parts of its network. Thus, DISH has flexibility to deploy baseband systems on AWS or in its network, and can use Graviton or Intel systems. We have seen AWS engage in contracts with other parties where there are minimum usage rates or dollar commitments. We are not sure this is the case for the DISH deal, but AWS explains that it expects to deliver “thousands of site specific hardware,” while at the same time DISH expects that by mid 2023, it will have built out “15,000 cellular sites.”
We wanted to share some insights on how this relationship appears to be structured. It appears that many scenarios have been envisioned as to how the relationship may evolve in the future, and we think that both parties have worked in contract terms that allow some flexibility in achieving each company’s goals. We did not review the contract between the two companies, but in a webinar presentation held April 30, 2021, executives from DISH hedged their bets somewhat on the relationship with AWS in ways we found interesting:
Cisco's customer event, Cisco Live (virtual), is underway, and the company made many announcements. We are emphasizing what we think are the most relevant, which include Observability capabilities, Network as a Service (NaaS), and SASE. Here is a rundown of what we learned about today.
Core portfolio (includes Campus Ethernet Switches, Wireless LAN).
Security (includes Firewall, Content Security, Identity).
In a briefing with Rakuten Mobile today, we learned two neat things: It is experimenting with 3GPP on satellite, and it hopes to announced a full-stack Rakuten Communications Platform (RCP) customer as early as next quarter. The company also shared some plans that it has for improving coverage to 96% by the end of the summer '21, and that it believes it has a 50% total cost of ownership advantage for its 5G infrastructure versus a traditional network operator.
So, what's so important about "3GPP on satellite?" If satellites are able to communicate with all cell phones and other cellular devices, this would mean that coverage could be enabled where we might need to have placed macro base stations. If we don't need macro base stations everywhere as satellites provide that coverage in sparse areas, or maybe even along highway routes, then a future cellular operator might be able to build its network with far fewer macro towers and rely more on a "barbell" approach, with small cells providing high throughput in busy areas and satellites providing coverage between busy areas. This would reduce demand for 5G base stations. Rakuten expects that its satellite partner, AST, may offer satellite coverage for Japan at the end of 2023 or the beginning of 2024 - that is a ways off. But, this means that in 3 or so years, the need for base stations may be considerably reduced.
Also, Rakuten spokesperson, Tareq Amin, said he thinks it is possible that Rakuten may announce its first RCP customer as early as next quarter. We published about RCP in November 2020, around when the team first started making RCP known to the public. This means that a division of a mobile operator, Rakuten Mobile, may be selling its know-how, technology and services to another telecom operator, presumably outside of Japan. This is a big deal in that most operators buy from vendors and systems integrators, not from others who are in the same business as them. It is also a big deal because cloud companies like Amazon, Microsoft and Google all want to sell their cloud services to operators, too. And, if RCP gets there first, and sells its full stack (radio, core, billing, orchestration, OSS) it would represent a first-ever full stack services deal.
In conjunction with its recent Rakuten earnings call this week, Rakuten Mobile disclosed some more of its plans. This mobile operator is becoming a telecom vendor. Specifically, it said that “by expanding the Rakuten Communications Platform (RCP) globally, Rakuten aims to evolve from a Japan-headquartered tech company to a global leader in telecom.” We see this as an explicit statement that the company plans to sell its telecom software and related services to operators worldwide. For instance, Rakuten Mobile just announced a partnership with Saudi-based operator, stc. This move pits Rakuten against Microsoft (who just acquired telecom companies and runs a cloud), Oracle (who runs a cloud and made telecom company acquisitions), and the rest of the telecom industry (traditionally Nokia, Ericsson, Huawei, ZTE, Amdocs, Netcracker and others).
In offering RCP to other operators around the world, its unique value, as we see it, is that Rakuten has successfully built an LTE and now a 5G network based on Open RAN. What we find interesting is that the company has developed a significant amount of intellectual property in-house or through technology sharing. In an interview today with Tareq Amin, Rakuten Mobile executive, we asked what technology has been developed in-house by Rakuten. Here’s what we learned.
Some other components are not developed by Rakuten (the radios come to mind), but this is an exciting development. RCP would be delivered as a “private cloud” on the premises of carrier customers (partners). The terminology Rakuten is using for this “private cloud,” is it’s a “pod.” RCP’s plans are a very interesting development in the industry.
There is one more thing. Rakuten said it is working with a technology supplier that will sell Rakuten a server card that would allow a combined router and RAN processing function to co-exist on a server. Today, the servers it uses to support its Open RAN radios use an FPGA NIC. These servers can support up to 16 base stations. We see the addition of routing to this card as an extension of the capability – but it means there may be a diminished need for cell site routers.
Before the consolidation in the Mobile Radio Access Network (MRAN) market that occurred in the past decade during Huawei’s ascendancy, there were a dozen major RAN vendors. They included Motorola, Lucent, Alcatel, Siemens, Nokia, Ericsson, NEC, Fujitsu, Samsung, Nortel, Huawei and ZTE, and they hailed from the US, France, Germany, Finland, Sweden, Japan, Korea, Canada and China.
As Huawei entered the market, using a price aggressor strategy, it catalyzed mergers, resulting in the elimination of Motorola, Lucent, Alcatel, Siemens, Nortel, plus a reinforcement that led to the Japanese and Korean players to sell primarily to their home markets. The result is that in many markets during recent years, there were only two vendors left, and that left operators with little choice but to look elsewhere.
The punchline is that going forward, due in part to Open RAN, and in part to the response of operators looking outside their traditional supplier base, we now have 10 RAN players who can bid on projects. And there is a multiplier on top of the 10 players, because going forward, operators can buy radio heads from different vendors than their primary RAN baseband vendor, essentially doubling the number of choices an operator has when making mobile RAN vendor decisions.
Here is how we arrive at the conclusion that there were only two players per major geography. Just a couple years ago, the state of affairs was quite different; we had only Nokia, Ericsson, Huawei and ZTE as players, and last year, it became clear that in the US, only two major players were left. In China, the same could be said, with Huawei and ZTE as main suppliers (Ericsson has won business there and Nokia ceded the market in 2019). And in 2020, we’ve seen much of Europe and English-speaking Asia whittle down to two suppliers, as well.
And here is how the procurement teams at operators have much choice in the future. The “Open RAN” vendors are now deemed viable given the success at Rakuten and the push by operators to demand Open RAN compliance, and these include Altiostar, Mavenir and Parallel Wireless. Nokia and Ericsson are invited to most, if not all bids worldwide.
Huawei and ZTE are invited to many, but a declining number of bids in markets that are siding with the US viewpoint. We saw a turning point in late 2018 when AT&T announced it will buy from Samsung, who has now gotten a strong foothold in both India and the US. And, more recently, we have seen two Japanese players, NEC and Fujitsu, in some way filling in the void left by Huawei and ZTE’s woes in the US/China spat, as they get wins (Fujitsu recently won DISH) and get invited to bid (NEC and Fujitsu are being asked to bid on UK projects). Add these up and we have Altiostar, Mavenir, Parallel Wireless, Nokia, Ericsson, Huawei, ZTE, Samsung, NEC, Fujitsu.
There are other factors at work that are adding to more RAN choices, as well. Two such trends are Facebook’s efforts, ONF’s efforts and the variety of radio head vendors who are now viable with Open RAN/FB/ONF efforts. Facebook has promoted projects such as Telecom Infra Project (TIP) that have many goals, including one that supports the goal of $1,000 radio heads (these cost much more from the major vendors).
The Open Network Foundation (ONF) supports projects such as SD-RAN and Aether.
Radios can be purchased from non-traditional sources, as well because with all three projects we have mentioned above (TIP, ONF SD-RAN and Open RAN), these allow radio purchases to be made separately from baseband purchases, literally doubling the choices that operators have when building out a roster of vendors.
The trends in mobile RAN have changed significantly. Vendors with little to lose (startups and players entering new markets) are getting aggressive to grow their businesses. Incumbent vendors are at risk, as their business practice of selling baseband and radio simultaneously to captive operators is coming to an end. We may look back at this early 5G era and say there was a lot more to it than just the upgrade to 5G, and it begs the question, who will acquire whom to consolidate the market once again and get pricing under control.