Rakuten delays 5G launch by three months

Rakuten Mobile has pushed back its timeline to launch 5G service in Japan by three months until the fall, citing impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Rakuten just commercially launched its greenfield 4G network in early April and had planned to introduce 5G service in June. With COVID-19 impacting part of the company’s global supply chain, that is now delayed until at least September. Details on timing of the launch will be disclosed later as Rakuten continues to monitor the situation.

The impact of the public health crisis was mainly on 5G network software testing and validation in areas where there are restrictions on movement, a Rakuten spokesperson said in an emailed response to FierceWireless.

Still, the spokesperson reiterated Rakuten’s base station deployment is on track to meet the requirement of installing 677 base stations by the end of March 2021. By that time Rakuten expects to cover 70% of Japan’s population with mobile service.

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“We expect the impact on business performance to be minor,” the spokesperson added regarding the delay.   

Rakuten Mobile CTO Tareq Amin in a statement said: “We would like to extend our deepest sympathies to all those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and thank all of our employees and partner staff for their commitment to our 5G rollout during these difficult times. We will work to minimize the impact of the pandemic and look forward to launching our 5G service in the near future.”

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Rakuten Mobile operated as an MVNO prior to building its own 4G network based on a fully virtualized and open radio access network (RAN) architecture, which it says delivers cost savings both in terms capital spending and operating the network.

In reporting earnings last week, Rakuten was hopeful to hit its target of signing up 3 million customers this year, but didn’t disclose current subscriber figures.

For its 5G network, Rakuten Mobile and vendor NEC developed an 5G radio unit based on open RAN architecture standards that first shipped in late March. Rakuten said NEC’s 5G RU would play a key role in its next-gen mobile network and enabled the start of construction on 5G base stations. Other vendors for the cloud-native 5G network include Altiostar, Intel, and Airspan, among others.

Earlier this week, Rakuten Mobile announced plans to acquire operations support system (OSS) startup Innoeye. Based in Herndon, Virginia, Innoeye’s software already runs in Rakuten’s wireless network, supporting its 4G/5G cloud.

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The software is also used in the new Rakuten Communications Platform (RCP). Rakuten aims to bundle technology and learnings from its own wireless build and eventually offer it as a service to other operators globally that want to deploy their own cloud-native networks.