Japan's NEC Corporation set to supplant Huawei in developing UK's 5G rollout. Image: NEC Corporation

NEC, Japan’s leading telecom equipment supplier and system integrator, has announced the establishment of an Open RAN (Open Radio Access Network) promotion center in the United Kingdom, a move that could define and guide the nation’s 5G telecom rollout.

 The so-called Global Open RAN Center of Excellence aims “to accelerate the global adoption of Open RAN and to further strengthen its structure for accelerating the global deployment of 5G.”

Open RAN standards allow different companies to supply different parts of a telecommunications network, facilitating the development of multi-vendor alternatives to Huawei, Ericsson and Nokia.

NEC says the center will handle business development, assist project execution and provide technical support for NEC’s Open RAN business. It will leverage its experience in supporting the commercial deployment of Open RAN in Japan to help telecom service providers introduce open RAN worldwide.

The center will work in tandem with an Open RAN Laboratory (technical verification facility) in India, “which will be responsible for building up Open RAN ecosystems with interoperability validation in a multi-vendor environment, as well as verifying product and system-level performance and quality assurance.”

The announcement follows the signing of the UK-Japan Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement in October. The establishment of NEC’s Global Open RAN Center demonstrates that this is not just a trade agreement.

After banning equipment from Huawei on national security grounds, including concerns about surveillance and shutdowns, Britain has invited NEC to support the development of 5G in the UK. This dovetails with the strong defense and security ties between the two countries.

As the British Ambassador to Japan Paul Madden wrote in the Japan Times last February: “Last year saw British soldiers undertaking joint exercises on Japanese soil for the first time, and Self-Defense Forces troops exercised in the UK, too.” The Royal Air Force and Japan Air Self-Defense Force have also trained together at Misawa Air Base in northern Honshu.

NEC is well-established in the UK. Its EMEA (Europe, Middle East & Africa) regional headquarters is in London and facilities for the design and development of next-generation mobile communications and software and services for the public sector are located elsewhere in the country. It is not starting from ground zero.

The logo of Japan’s electronics and information technology company NEC at a retail store in Tokyo. With growing pressure to keep China’s Huawei out of 5G network development, it could be time for firms like Japan’s NEC to shine. Photo: AFP / Kazuhiro Nogi

NTT, Japan’s largest telecom carrier and a close partner of NEC, established a new global headquarters in London last year. (For more detail on the two companies’ collaboration and 5G in Japan, see my July 10 Asia Times article, “Japan Inc set to challenge Huawei in 5G.”)

Last March, NEC and Rakuten Mobile – Japan’s fourth and newest mobile telecom carrier – announced that production of equipment for Rakuten Mobile’s Open RAN network had begun at NEC’s Fukushima factory.

Since then, Rakuten has been building base stations and launching 5G services in parts of Hokkaido and the greater Tokyo and Osaka-Kobe metropolitan areas. It aims to expand nationwide by March 2021.

Rakuten Mobile is creating what Chief Technology Officer Tareq Amin calls “the world’s first end-to-end fully virtualized cloud-native mobile network” using equipment and software from Cisco and Nokia as well as from NEC to provide Japan’s cheapest 4G and 5G services.

Rakuten is demonstrating the viability of a flexible open-architecture multi-vendor approach that eliminates dependence on custom-built networks from single suppliers. This is eminently suitable for a nation such as the UK that is technologically sophisticated but lacks its own national telecom equipment champion.

Last May, the Open RAN Policy Coalition was launched in the US. Executive Director Diane Rinaldo was previously acting administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and acting assistant secretary of commerce for communications and information.

Members of the coalition include NEC, NTT, Rakuten Mobile and Fujitsu from Japan, Samsung, Nokia, Verizon, Telefonica and Deutsche Telecom along with AT&T, Cisco, Dell, Microsoft, Oracle, Qualcomm, Xilinx and numerous other American companies.

It is a formidable coalition that excludes Chinese members.

In addition to promoting and supporting Open RAN 5G networks, NEC plans to collaborate with telecom carriers to transform them into digital service providers. Many of those services are likely to be NEC’s own.

Open RAN could be the future of 5G. Image: Facebook

NEC technologies that have synergies with the widespread deployment of 5G include facial recognition (top-ranked worldwide), biometrics, video analytics and the industrial internet of things (IIoT).

Target markets include public safety, cybersecurity, digital government, city management, smart transportation and logistics, factory automation and digital healthcare. 

Rakuten, the “Amazon of Japan,” is doing the reverse, adding a mobile telecom carrier to its e-commerce services.

Scott Foster is an analyst with Lightstream Research, Tokyo.