Rakuten delays full launch of 4G mobile network, builds its own smartphone

Japan-based Rakuten set itself too short of a deadline to roll out its ambitious greenfield 4G mobile network. In a press conference today, Rakuten executives said instead of deploying Rakuten Mobile in October as originally intended, the company would launch a trial program on October 1. The “Free Supporter Program” will offer voice and data services to 5,000 subscribers and will be expanded in waves until the full network launch in April 2020.

Apparently, the company has run into delays in deploying its base stations. The delays stem from business arrangements to secure the necessary sites, as well as connecting the base stations to fiber. Rakuten execs hedged about the number of base stations they have deployed so far. But, Japan's communications ministry says Rakuten has only 532 base stations in place, compared with plans for 3,432 by the end of March 2020, according to Nikkei Asian Review.

By October 1, when it begins its trial period, Rakuten will have its own network of base stations covering parts of Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka. It will lease KDDI’s network in other parts of Japan while it continues to build out its own infrastructure.

‘Such a challenging project’

Rakuten Chairman and CEO Hiroshi Mikitani compared the buildout of Rakuten Mobile to NASA’s Apollo space project, which landed the first humans on the moon. He said building a completely virtualized, software-powered mobile network was like a dream for network engineers. “At Mobile World Congress last year, several network equipment companies actually said that it would be impossible,” said Mikitani. “This was such a challenging project.”

Rakuten Mobile is using generic Intel-chip-based hardware to run all its software. “We did not use any dedicated hardware except for the antennas,” said Mikitani. “Everything is now operated in software. Major hardware is not needed for our cell sites. Our base stations are very simple.”

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Rakuten Mobile’s CTO Tareq Amin said much of the initial network is complete, including “construction of all our edge data centers and large data centers.” He said the company has completed its own IP backbone and the major buildout has been done for all its core network functions. “We talk about 200 far edge data centers in only one year, thousands of servers deployed and tested,” said Amin.

But, he said he’s most proud of the company’s virtualized RAN. “This is something you cannot buy off the shelf from a traditional OEM. We minimized the complexity of building the traditional base station. That is the extent of the electronics that exist in Japan today.” The product has an antenna and an integrated remote radio head.

Amin also said Rakuten Mobile is already operating 182 virtual network functions (VNFs). 

Another innovative move for Rakuten is that its network will support eSIM. Embedded subscriber identity modules (eSIMs) are similar to SIM cards, but instead of being removable, they are embedded in the mobile device. And, they can be updated with software, as opposed to being physically replaced. With an eSIM, mobile subscribers could potentially switch service providers whenever they want.

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Rakuten isn’t yet saying how much it will charge for its mobile service once it’s commercially launched in April 2020. But, Rakuten Mobile President Yoshihisa Yamada said typically mobile vendors had minimum contract lengths and cancellation fees, which Rakuten will not have. “We will offer all devices that are completely SIM-lock free,” said Yamada. “A lot of time, devices and provider were tied together. But, you can keep using the same device for other communication providers.”

And, as if the company didn’t have enough on its plate, Rakuten has also built its own smartphone: the Rakuten Mini. It’s a super-small sized phone that is eSIM compatible, and it will be available to Rakuten Mobile subscribers.

Rakuten Mini

The credit-card-sized Rakuten Mini can be operated with one hand. “The size of the smartphone has been increasing; but especially female users have complained about the current trend,” said Mikitani. “They want to keep in a small handbag. We came up with our own design.”