Automating the Edge with Robotics

Japanese mobile player finds help figuring out virtualized edge computing

Japanese mobile player finds help figuring out virtualized edge computing

Japanese telecommunications newcomer, Rakuten Mobile Inc. is partnering with Queen’s University Belfast, in Northern Ireland, to research and develop a radio access network that is more efficient, faster and cheaper to operate.

Researchers at the new edge hub will focus on developing telecom-related virtual- and edge-computing technologies (including automation), services and standards that take full advantage of 5G architectures.

Indeed, Rakuten Mobile, a unit of e-commerce and online retailer Rakuten Inc. that launched in 2018, aspires to be the world’s first operator of an end-to-end virtualized and cloud-native mobile network.

The company is referred to as a software-defined mobile operator because of its focus on virtualization.

Virtual networks decouple software from hardware, taking advantage of software’s flexibility and cost advantage over hardware. Many companies end up becoming so invested in proprietary hardware that it becomes fiscally adventurous to experiment with any approach that isn’t predicated on the installed hardware.

It is easier and cheaper to create and update software than it is hardware. And with open application program interfaces (APIs), the software can work in heterogeneous facilities.

The researching team also is expected to work on automation that would have the networks act more as a single, somewhat intelligent entity that is able to adapt securely to changing conditions.

One of Rakuten’s ultimate aims is for its network is to have it automatically remedy problems, including human error. Executives have said they want “every network infrastructure component” automated.

Industry and technology standards are an important component of this effort, as well. Rakuten executives have noted — correctly — that few of them exist for edge computing. A lack of standards slows development, acceptance and expansion of — and investment in — hardware and software.

In fact, despite a lot of talk in the telecommunications industry about the arrival of 5G phone networks as a market force, there remains some hesitancy among enterprise information-technology departments when it comes to edge computing.

Some of that reluctance is due to CIOs not wanting to bet on one product or technology only to have it sidelined by subsequent standards.

It is important to note as well that investors historically have been more willing to put more funds into software innovations than hardware. Hardware development generally is plodding compared to that of software, and returns are smaller over time.

The Queen’s University collaboration comes almost exactly a year after Rakuten executives announced that they had completed the first end-to-end test of their mobile network.

However, the launch of a full-scale mobile service, originally scheduled for last fall, was postponed until this spring.

The delay has been attributed to unspecified problems in installing network infrastructure and base stations. Rather than a full launch, executives opted for a 5,000-subscriber soft launch in October in which customers are not charged until the anticipated full launch in April.

More is riding on this collaboration than the company’s revenue.

Hiroshi Mikitani, Rakuten’s billionaire founder, wants a return on his investment, naturally. But the Japanese government wants to see the mobile unit become that nation’s fourth wireless carrier. Government officials say the new competition will reduce wireless subscription prices.

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