Rakuten Mobile named NEC as the supplier of its 5G mobile core, with the Japanese companies agreeing to develop a standalone (SA) network platform which the operator plans to sell to third-parties.

The companies partnered to develop an open, secure and scalable 4G and 5G cloud-native converged core, which Rakuten Mobile said will become a key feature of services offered to global customers through the Rakuten Communications Platform (RCP), its fully virtualised, cloud-native mobile network set-up.

In an online briefing, Rakuten chairman and CEO Mickey Mikitani (pictured) said NEC was selected for its core technology, and commitment and openness to develop and share a new-generation platform.

“It may sound strange that two Japanese companies are now trying to challenge the global telecoms industry, but I’m very confident we will be able to bring the Japan-quality platform to the world.”

To lower prices, Mikitani argued the industry needs extreme technological disruption, describing its RCP as “really an outside-of-the-box idea”.

Rakuten Mobile became Japan’s fourth full MNO in April with the launch of a 4G service, though its 5G plans were impacted by the Covid-19 (coronavirus) pandemic.

It picked NEC as a 5G equipment supplier in June 2019, with the first jointly developed radio unit shipped in March.

CTO Tareq Amin explained the core architecture is designed as a connectivity platform to enable co-innovation, with the companies working together to use open-source technologies; participate in key industry forums; and create a global network of innovation labs together with mobile operators, industry and government.

“Rakuten has no interest to be yet another vendor”, he said

Amin said it had held talks with many governments, discussing how to secure current and future networks, and make 5G more affordable, given infrastructure “today is not cheap”, with the business model and RoI “yet to be realised”.

It plans to first test the communications platform in Japan in brownfield deployments, then export.

The main software contributions for Rakuten Mobile’s virtual RAN came from US-based Altiostar, a company the operator invested in. It also works with Cisco, Nokia, Intel, Red Hat (now part of IBM), OKI, Fujitsu, Ciena, NEC/Netcracker, Qualcomm, Mavenir, Quanta Cloud Technology, Sercomm, Tech Mahindra, Allot and Viavi.

When asked about Nokia’s role in its core network, Amin said the vendor supplies the IMS core for its VoLTE service, with Cisco’s IP layer hardware and software in its data centre architecture.

Zahid Ghadialy, principal analyst at 3G4G, tweeted Rakuten Mobile could continue to use Cisco’s core for non-standalone (NSA) 5G, with NEC used solely for its SA network.

An operator representative told Mobile World Live Cisco and Nokia would continue to provide its 4G and NSA 5G cores, with 4G, NSA 5G and SA 5G to co-exist for a time.

“Thinking long-term, SA 5G provided in partnership with NEC will offer flexibility and more benefits to our users.”