Private 5G Gets Virtual Input from Rakuten

Ligado Networks deploys spectrum for enterprise 5G

Last week, US satellite communications company Ligado Networks and Japanese mobile network operator Rakuten Mobile signed a memorandum of understanding to use the latter’s virtualized, cloud-native mobile communications platform. Ligado Networks, the company once known as LightSquared, will tap Rakuten’s technology as the basis for a 5G private network service for enterprises.

Ligado plans to use a mix of satellite and terrestrial connectivity to offer private 5G networks using Rakuten’s expertise in Open RAN. Following approval from the US Federal Communications Commission in April 2020, Ligado will use its L-band spectrum holdings, spanning the 1 GHz to 2 GHz frequency range, to deploy a low-power nationwide 5G network in the US.

Rakuten has ambitious plans to disrupt the Japanese market, highlighted by its launch in April 2020 with tariffs that significantly undercut those of rivals (see Insight Report: Rakuten Could Form a Template for Future Mobile Launches). By February 2021, 2.5 million customers had applied for its mobile service, but this is still only a tiny fraction of Japan’s more than 150 million customers.

The most interesting part of the operator’s strategy is Rakuten Communications Platform (RCP). The concept, first announced in mid-2020, aims to package expertise in cloud networks, virtualization and Open RAN as a service to other operators around the world, allowing RCP customers to pick and choose which parts of the platform they want to use. Ligado, Telefonica and Saudi Arabia’s STC are the first named companies to explore the new service.

Ligado plans to offer packages combining RCP and its L-band spectrum to enable enterprise customers to deploy and manage private 5G networks, and to work with them to identify new uses. The move is a big U-turn for the company, which, operating as LightSquared, planned to build a national wholesale 4G network in the US but collapsed into bankruptcy after disputes with partners.

Notably, the announcement coincided with a similar move by another Japanese operator, NTT Docomo, to create a 5G Open RAN ecosystem that will be available to international operators. The network operator has gathered a group of 12 leading technology partners such as cloud providers and chip developers, aiming to accelerate the introduction of disaggregated 5G architectures.

NTT Docomo and Rakuten have become fierce rivals for mobile customers in Japan, and will now be competing to rack up not only customers and revenue in their home market, but also international members for their respective Open RAN ecosystems.