How Rakuten Mobile, Cisco CX plan to disrupt mobile services

The renewed partnership will allow Rakuten to launch enterprise-focused private 5G and IoT services.

Japan-based Rakuten Mobile introduced its mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) service back in 2014. The carrier has since built a fully virtualized, 5G-ready, cloud-native mobile network through a partnership with the Cisco Customer Experience (CX) group. 

Rakuten Mobile created a new type of mobile service that didn't exist prior to the partnership, which is still going strong today. For those not familiar with Cisco CX, it is the services team at Cisco. It's branded "CX" because the services are designed around customer outcomes versus traditional infrastructure services, which are more technology-centric.  

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In 2018, Rakuten Mobile called on Cisco CX to play a program management role in its network buildout. Together, Rakuten Mobile and Cisco architected and deployed an efficient infrastructure for networking, storage, and computing. This helped Rakuten Mobile provide a variety of new services without placing additional strain on the network. 

Cisco worked with its multi-domain teams -- distributed across Rakuten Mobile's 10 locations -- to come up with a software-only solution that boosted the usage of edge hardware resources from 30% to 90% for application workloads. Cisco also collaborated closely with other vendors to ensure compliance with their workloads. 

Next-generation mobile is multi-cloud 

"The orchestration of these workloads on any cloud is a daunting challenge already, whether it's Amazon Web Services or Google Cloud. The fact that you could take a cloud workload and move it to any cloud does not automatically mean you have achieved productivity and efficiency," Rakuten Mobile's chief technology officer Tareq Amin said during a recent call with analysts. "It's important to have a good software foundation. With Cisco, we were able to migrate traffic in less than a second without sending anyone to any of our data centers."

Three factors differentiate Rakuten Mobile, Amin said:

  • How it orchestrates and automates application workloads: Rakuten Mobile's technology runs near real-time, latency-sensitive workloads on a virtualized infrastructure across a vast number of distributed data centers.

  • How it drives artificial intelligence: Rakuten Mobile's platform has built-in conversational and engagement AI services.

  • Compelling private cloud solutions: Many customers continue to have a preference for private cloud deployments, in which both Rakuten Mobile and Cisco specialize. 

This year, Rakuten Mobile began deploying Cisco's segment routing over IPv6 (SRv6) equipment, enabling fixed-mobile convergence on Rakuten Mobile's existing internet protocol (IP) backbone. Rakuten Mobile has been optimizing its mobile network to support 5G services, including standalone services with network slicing capabilities. The renewed partnership will allow the carrier to launch enterprise-focused private 5G and Internet of Things (IoT) services.

Private 5G is coming to enterprises 

"We have a compelling offering for Cisco as they contemplate how to make private 5G successful. We want to combine Cisco's enterprise private 5G know-how with Rakuten Mobile's technology," said Amin.

Rakuten Mobile is taking lessons learned in Japan and expanding globally. The carrier wants to bring its technology stack to Europe, which is well-positioned for a networking overhaul. In the next phase, Rakuten Mobile and Cisco would once again work together to provide unified cloud network functions (radio, core, intelligent operations) and a customer-centric billing experience offered through a market store, according to Amin.

Meanwhile, both companies are also pursuing opportunities in the private 5G space in the U.S. Amin envisions having small cell access nodes with 5G capabilities connected to highly reliable 802.11ax sixth-generation Wi-Fi, coupled with software that manages the network. The combination of 5G/Wi-Fi 6/software would make networks easier to deploy and operate -- and also lower the cost trajectory for connectivity.

"Our partnership with Cisco CX isn't just about a project or a small period of time," said Amin. "We have a complimentary technology stack and complementary skills. We will continue to find ways to challenge each other and collaborate."

One of the interesting aspects of this partnership was Rakuten's choice of Cisco for program management because this wasn't a typical role for Cisco at the time. In a briefing with analysts, I asked Amin why he used Cisco in that role. He answered that one of his goals was to minimize the number of vendors, so he was going to choose from the group of vendors he was using. 

"Although this was a new service offering for the Cisco CX team, I liked how they looked at the project from a customer point of view," Amin said. "They were fully engaged with our team, and it often felt like the team was not wearing a Cisco badge but a Rakuten one. I want to be clear that there were problems along the way, and there always are. What's important is how the vendor responds and Cisco CX, and we continue to find ways of challenging each other and collaborating. Ultimately, it was Cisco's willingness to be a partner that is why we picked them. Now it's not just Japan where we will use them; there are other global opportunities". 

From an industry perspective, the model Rakuten and Cisco CX have put in place should be something all large enterprises seek. Digital technologies are significantly more complex than previous generations, creating implementation and adoption challenges.

Technology vendors need to be open, multi-vendor and outcome-focused because this will help their customers succeed.