Telefonica and Rakuten to combine efforts on Open RAN and network automation

Odd couple Telefonica and Rakuten both want to get on with it, is about the message.

Today Telefonica and Rakuten said they would be co-operating to jointly develop products for Open RAN and for cloud-native, automated core and OSS solutions. They also said they would enter into a joint procurement initiative for Open RAN and cloud-native network solutions.

It’s an odd couple buddy movie – the giant incumbent and the plucky upstart. Cast Telefonica as the experienced old pro learning new tricks from its fresh-faced young partner, and Rakuten as the upstart new-comer finding respect for the old stager that, it turns out, has a few tricks of its own.

Telefonica gets to deepen its understanding of how the virtual RAN platform works, and to develop a reference platform that integrators can go and make happen in the network. Rakuten gets scale investment in the products, and help with procurement (ie access to even cheaper product via the scale that Telefonica brings). And although it already has experience in instrumenting its network to become automated, it also gets the benefit of Telefonica’s huge amount of work in virtualising its network, and in developing AI-led solutions for cloud-based network functionality.

As Rakuten CTO Tareq Amin said, “The opportunity for making software better is enormous. We have unparalleled access to the engineering resources to build resilience and a software architecture for how to automate networks as a whole.”

“We can send a clear message that Open RAN is not a competitive tool, it’s an industry necessity,” Blanco said, as he repeated a recent company target that 50% of new RAN sites it deploys between 2022 an 2025 would be based on Open RAN technology. “This is only going one way,” he said later.

“It’s a defining moment for industry transformation,” said Amin.  “It’s well overdue to embrace what future networks will look like, so that [operators] are able to cope with faster network rollouts, lower cost structures and more agility.”

“Working with Telefonica gives us an amazing opportunity to prove that Open RAN is not only applicable in greenfield operations but in how to transform brownfield operations into newer generation infrastructure.”

Both companies were keen to re-iterate that the partnership is not just on Open RAN, but on OSS and the underlying systems that, in Amin’s words,  “Are going to go through massive transformation on where they need to be.”

Telefonica CTIO Enrique Blanco said, “We have been working for four or five years on a flexible, automated cloud approach, working out how we can control this in a pure evolution to cloud native solutions.” He added that achieving five nines reliability for this automated, AI-led operation environment is a key goal of the partnership.

Speaking to journalists, the two CTOs said that the partnership is designed to speed up the maturity of Open RAN solutions. That includes enhancing the ability for Systems Integrators to put the dis-aggregated solutions together so that Open RAN can achieve “massive scale”.

“We are trying to open the ecosystem for new integrators, to see if they can solve a significant part of the problem that we need to solve,” Blanco said. A slide from Blanco name-checked NEC, TechMahindra and IBM in this section.

It is also designed to increase network security capability by removing the “black box” of closed interfaces that exist within traditional vendors’ existing solutions. Opening up these interfaces, giving complete visibility, would mean operators no longer have to take vendors’ word for it that their products are secure. This is pretty much the opposite of the view put forward by Ericsson last week, that open and virtual RAN platforms could actually increase security risks by introducing new elements, interfaces and software vulnerabilities.

I will no longer accept a locked interface,” Amin said. “We will apply a zero trust principle and constantly improve the security apparatus,” he added.

Other details, however, remained less clear. How will the joint procurement alliance work? Details were vague but it may include the companies building direct relationships with suppliers in the value chain (more like the Rakuten model of engaging directly with component suppliers and then specifying a manufacturing integration.)

Is Telefonica becoming a de facto customer of the Rakuten Communications Platform (the model that Rakuten has to commercialise its own deployment model)? It could be, yes, and Blanco wouldn’t discount working with partners that form key elements of that ecosystem. That includes Altiostar, of course, a “portfolio company” for Rakuten and in which Telefonica also has a strategic interest

Will the products that result from this joint development be commercialised, and if so how? Again, there wasn’t a specific answer but Blanco was keen to say that Telefonica is also working with the rest of the major European operators in the industry.

Amin did say that the companies would be producing reference designs and blueprints “for anyone who wants to adopt them”.

“People want to see a meaningful partnership without years of debate,” Amin added. “This is an industry inclusive event, but for us the industry needs catalysts, people that are willing to move forward and engage.”

However, although Rakuten and Telefonica want to move fast, they want others to come too. “The more people that participate in making this a reality, embracing this, is critical,” Amin said.


With O-RAN and TIP specifying elements and interfaces in the Open RAN ecosystem, and numerous open source and cloud networking initiatives, we now have two operators coming together outside of those environments to work together on developing and commercialising not just Open RAN technology, but also the underlying support architecture of an AI-led, cloud native operational infrastructure. And these two operators seem keen to be inclusive and share with other operators.

So what does this tell us? Perhaps that O-RAN has done a good job of defining elements and interfaces, and providing a proving ground for interoperability, but that getting to a mass operational environment still requires work. And perhaps also that TIP has got focussed in on specific product points, some of them targeted at specific use case requirements of individual or small groups of operators. And further that some of the open source projects on automated network operations and AI architectures are proving less than directly consumable by a player such as Telefonica.

But it doesn’t look like we are [yet] seeing the formation of another industry group. Despite the words about inclusivity and sharing, there wasn’t a sign of this partnership being formed into an alliance with other operators. When directly asked if Dish would join, Amin said that although he welcomed the interest Dish’s technical team had shown in Rakuten, he thought the company would have enough on its hands for now with a “very aggressive” deployment programme.