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MWC 2019: The Cisco and Nokia tech behind Rakuten’s mobile network

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(Image: Corinne Reichert/ZDNet)

Japanese online marketplace Rakuten has made the surprise announcement that it will be launching its own mobile network in just eight months, thanks to hardware and software from tech giants Cisco and Nokia.

The Rakuten Mobile Network, which will launch in October, will be the first fully virtualised, cloud-based mobile network in the world.

Speaking with ZDNet at Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2019 in Barcelona, Cisco global director of Mobility and 5G Bob Everson said the rollout will utilise his company’s virtualisation architecture.

“They have a really nice approach,” he said.

“It’s a greenfield build, it’s brand new, so they have the benefit of being able to decide how they want to do this from scratch, and so a very innovative approach where it’s all a completely virtualised, cloud-based network.”

Cisco, which also announced its Unified Domain Center (UDC) at MWC as “the bridge between DNA and mobile”, is lending its routing and switching hardware, software, and services across its cloud, IT, and service provider portfolios to the Rakuten build-out.

The networking giant is also providing its experts from engineering, security, operations, and multi-vendor systems integration.

Once deployed, the network will include a fully virtualised network with multi-access edge computing; software-defined networking; centralised and regional datacentre capabilities; and full service and infrastructure automation.

Rakuten Mobile Network CTO Tareq Amin said his company’s network will be “software powered and automated from top to bottom”.

“With this design approach we mapped out with Cisco and a careful selected vendor ecosystem, we believe we can offer high-value services at more affordable costs, helping our customers to share the true benefits of cloud innovation,” Amin said.

According to the Amin, this virtualised, cloud-based approach is going to save his company at least 35 percent in opex compared to traditional mobile carriers.

“Normally, RAN is somewhat of a monolithic system that’s deployed out there with the software and hardware integrated, and as we move towards virtualisation, the industry is refining a path to get there,” Everson explained.

“It’s a completely virtualised network based on Cisco telco cloud, Cisco orchestration.”

Read also: MWC 2019: Google Stati/on, Cisco team up for global connectivity initiative

Everson said that when Rakuten first announced its intentions to build a mobile network, many in the industry didn’t know it would work.

“Now what we’re showing is that all they have to have out at the cell site is basically the radio and the antenna equipment,” he said.

“None of the real processing happens there, and so all they need is a construction person to go out there, not the higher-level technician, but just the construction person to hang the antenna, plug it in, and it’s literally plug and play back to the network, so they plug that cable in, it goes back to the OSS and the OSS says, ‘I know you’, kicks off our orchestration system, which pushes the RAN software out to an edge cloud node — they have 4,000 edge cloud nodes, they’re all built on Cisco virtualisation technology  — pushes the software out there, brings up all the radio software, and connects to the antenna and fires up the network, and we actually have it doing it in a couple of minutes versus days of coordination.

“Rakuten is way beyond a proof of concept, it’s a real live network that they’re aggressively moving forward with.”

The mobile network will also be 5G ready, according to Cisco, with 5G-enabled IPv6 transport and mobile backhaul.

Nokia CTO: ‘Is the future of web-scales mobile networks?’

Nokia is providing the radio hardware as well as the end-to-end system integrator for Rakuten, Nokia CTO Marcus Weldon told ZDNet in an interview.

“Because they don’t have any cell sites of their own, they decided to go straight to a cloud-native RAN instead of going with the conventional one where you put the baseband at the bottom of the tower,” Weldon said.

“They lease tower space to put radios up and then backhaul, but they didn’t want to use the cabinet, the baseband, so they’ve gone for cloud native, which is a first.”

Nokia is also working with Rakuten on 5G, but he said it will all be LTE for now.

According to the CTO, the most interesting part of the Rakuten story is the transition of a web-scale company into the mobile network space.

“They’re in the radio business to allow them to complement their web platforms. So they’re a web-scale, but no web-scale has ever built a mobile network before,” he said.

“Is the future of web-scales building mobile networks? Rakuten is the first one that is a web-scale who’s building a mobile network.”

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GM and LG reveal second $2.3bn Ultium EV battery plant

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GM and LG will build a new electric car battery plant together, the two companies have confirmed today, settling rumors of an expansion of the joint Ultium Cells venture as the automaker tries to maximize production of cheaper EV power packs. The new facility will be in Spring Hill, Tennessee, and see General Motors and LG Energy Solution pump in a further $2.3 billion in investment.

It follows an existing $2.3 billion investment by the pair in a battery production facility in Lordstown, Ohio. Construction there is currently underway, as GM prepares for a rapid uptick in demand across its various brands for batteries.

GM Ultium, announced in 2019, is the automaker’s new platform for all-electric vehicles. It’ll underpin models from Cadillac, GMC, Buick, Chevrolet, and other nameplates in General Motors’ portfolio, with the potential for 450+ miles of range and a variety of drivetrain configurations. However, it’ll also be expensive, at least to begin with, and no small part of that is the cost of the battery cells themselves.

It’s leading to a split in GM’s EV portfolio, of sorts, as Ultium is reserved for the electric vehicles that can command the highest sticker prices. That means models like the six-figure GMC Hummer EV and the Hummer EV SUV, along with the Cadillac Lyriq. In contrast, more affordable – and more mainstream – models like Chevrolet’s Bolt EV and new Bolt EV electric crossover will continue using the automaker’s existing, less advanced but much cheaper, platform.

Looking ahead, though, GM is counting on Ultium coming down in price and making affordable batteries at-scale more of a possibility. The roadmap calls for pack sizes from 50 to 200 kilowatt hours, made up of large-format, pouch-style cells which can be stacked either vertically or horizontally for maximum flexibility. There’ll also be support for either 400-volt packs with 200 kW DC fast charging, or 800-volt packs with 350 kW DC fast charging, depending on model and target audience.

Getting that all to a cost-effective point is vital if planned vehicles like the all-electric Chevrolet Silverado are to be competitive.

The new Spring Hill Ultium plant will be built by Ultium Cells on land leased from GM to the joint venture. Eventually it’s expected to span approximately 2.8 million-square-feet, with construction beginning immediately. However it’s not going to be open until late 2023, GM warns.

At that point, it’ll be supplying batteries to GM’s Spring Hill assembly plant nearby. That’ll be the location where Cadillac builds the upcoming Lyriq luxury electric crossover, alongside the existing gas-powered XT6 and XT5 SUVs.

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Samsung’s new smart headlamp tech just leaves me angrier

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You might not associate Samsung with car parts, but the company has revealed new smart LED headlamp clusters that could bring active lights to a much broader range of vehicles – though for the moment it looks like American drivers will miss out. The Samsung PixCell LEDs aren’t just one light source but in fact a whole cluster of more than 100 ultra-small segments, built into a single LED chip.

Those segments can be individually controlled, such as by an adaptive driving beam (ADB) system. For instance, if the system spots an oncoming vehicle at night, while you have your high-beams switched on, it could selectively occlude the parts of the headlamps which are directed at that vehicle.

The result would be avoiding glare for that car, but continued visibility around it for you. Alternatively, headlamps using the PixCell LEDs could focus light according to ambient conditions, such as when driving in fog or heavy rain, to maximize how much of the road can be seen.

Samsung isn’t the first company to offer smart headlamp LEDs like this, but its method is a little different. The PixCell system combines 100+ tiny segments – each separated by a silicon wall – with each acting like a pixel. The light-emitting area is only 1/16th of the size of a conventional discrete LED module used in current ADB systems, Samsung says. That means the overall light assembly could be as much as 50-percent smaller without impairing functionality.

That’s great, assuming you live in a country where these sort of headlamps are actually permitted. It’s a problem US drivers find themselves facing, where automakers have been forced to disable the smart lighting features on cars for sale in America. Currently, regulations in the US don’t allow this sort of selective lighting on vehicles, and while car companies and safety organizations have pushed for changes, there’s no telling when – or if – that will happen.

It’s frustrating, because it leaves American drivers missing out on some of the biggest advances in tech we’ve seen in automotive recently. Audi’s digital matrix LED system, for example, is offered elsewhere in the world on vehicles like the e-tron SUV; the same EV in the US, however, doesn’t offer that feature. Mercedes’ Digital Light – as featured on the new flagship EQS all-electric luxury sedan – is similarly blocked by out-of-date rules. Both systems, when functional, can even do things like project graphics on the road to better communicate vehicle behaviors with pedestrians and other road users; in the US, about the smartest thing they can manage is automatically flip between high- and low-beam settings.

Polestar found itself in the same situation with the recently-launched Polestar 2. The EV has Pixel LED headlamps, made up of 84 individual LEDs within each light, and which can do things like selectively shade the brightness in patches so as not to dazzle oncoming traffic.

While US-spec cars are fitted with the Pixel LED hardware, the advanced ADB features aren’t enabled. Polestar has said that it could do that with an OTA software update in future, should the local regulations change, though again it can’t say when that might happen, if it ever does. In fact, owners of the Polestar 2 could have the EV and never get to use the full extent of the features it’s capable of.

Samsung says there are still good reasons to use the PixCell LED system, even if ADB isn’t legally allowed in every region. For a start, it supports different configuration of the same hardware to suit varying light regulations and requirements. “Based on a single standard headlamp design,” the company points out, “lamp makers can customize light output to suit varying design needs and enjoy reduced lead time for development, production, supply and time-to-market.”

With some software architecture foresight by automakers, then, smart LED lights like these could one day be upgraded with a firmware patch to enable the more advanced functionality that the hardware is capable of. For that to happen, though, we’ll need US road safety regulators to get up to speed with the cutting-edge of vehicle tech, and that’s a process which is frustratingly slow in comparison.

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Alpha Wolf+ EV has an extra pair of suicide rear doors

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California-based startup Alpha Motor Corporation is expanding its electric vehicle portfolio with the Wolf+ (Wolf Plus), an extended-cab version of the brand’s Wolf electric pickup unveiled last month. Whereas a standard Wolf EV pickup truck has only two doors, Wolf+ has dual rear-hinged half-doors to make the rear seats more accessible, similar to what you get in the 2022 Mazda MX-30 EV.

Despite its extended-cab body style, Alpha Wolf+ has the same 5.5-feet bed as the non-plus version. It also gets a bevy of off-road accessories like standard fog lights, a roof basket, and a set of solar panels in the bed cover.

Like the first Alpha Wolf, the Wolf+ you see on this page are just renderings of an incoming pre-production prototype model. We have no word yet of an official launch date, but Alpha is on track to make its first customer deliveries beginning as early as 2023. The company also revealed the JAX (Junior All-Terrain Crossover) SUV earlier this year, a four-passenger off-road vehicle with retro styling cues similar to Wolf and Wolf+.

Alpha claims a range of 250 to 275+ miles from a still-unspecified battery pack. If the Alpha JAX is any indication, we reckon Wolf+ might come with a 75 kWh lithium-ion battery. Additionally, Wolf+ is available in a single motor RWD or dual-motor AWD powertrain. We find this surprising since a standard Wolf with a single motor is a front-wheel-drive unit.

We also found the performance numbers a bit surprising. Alpha claims Wolf+ accelerates from zero to 60 mph in 5.9-seconds versus 6.2-seconds for a front-drive Wolf. It also has a maximum towing capacity of 6274 pounds (3050 kg). In contrast, a standard Wolf can tow 3000 pounds (1,360 kg). Indeed, you can haul more stuff with Wolf+.

Inside, Alpha Wolf+ has a digital instrument cluster, a large center touchscreen, Bluetooth connectivity, and a premium audio system. Base models get 16-inch wheels, while larger 17 to 18-inch alloys are available. And yes, Alpha Wolf+ has a roomy frunk or front trunk.

Alpha has yet to unveil definite launch dates for its all-electric vehicles, but the reservation books are open for both the Wolf and Wolf+ models. The Wolf has base prices starting at $36,000 to $46,000, while pricing for Wolf+ will follow soon.

Alpha Wolf+ Gallery

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