Rakuten Mobile unveils low-cost unlimited plans in Japan, makes new U.S. hire

Rakuten Mobile on Tuesday unveiled low-cost unlimited mobile plans for its forthcoming wireless service slated to launch next month in Japan.

Rakuten is offering unlimited data for 2,980 yen (about $28) per month, and aims to boost its customer base by offering free service for the first year to 3 million users. The monthly price tag is roughly half the cost of service plans from competitors NTT Docomo, KDDI and Softbank, according to the Japan Times.

Rakuten, Japan’s new fourth mobile operator, said it can offer aggressive prices thanks to its fully virtualized cloud-native network architecture that reduces capital expenditures and operations costs, allowing it to pass savings onto subscribers.

RELATED: Nokia operates Rakuten Mobile’s virtualized core

Though delayed from its initial October launch target, Rakuten Mobile is set to introduce 4G service on its new network April 8. The operator intends to launch 5G services later this year.

Notably, Rakuten’s network is still limited to major cities such as Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka, and data is capped at 2 GB per month when subscribers ride on partner networks. For more widespread coverage Rakuten is leasing rival KDDI’s network, which it already uses to operate its MVNO service in Japan.

Last week CTO Tareq Amin said Rakuten had more than 3,200 base stations on air in Tokyo, with plans to have 4,400 live by next month.  

The operator is also pushing its Rich Communications Services (RCS) application Link, which will offer free calls and text messages within Japan and from overseas to Japan. Customers can sign up in advance for Rakuten Mobile service starting today online and in stores beginning tomorrow.

U.S. ambitions

Rakuten is an e-commerce giant, offering a variety of services, and plans to tap its existing pool of 1.4 billion global users. CEO Mickey Mikitani has said the company intends to export its virtualized radio access network (RAN) vision outside of Japan.

Related to those ambitions, on Tuesday Rakuten announced it’s exploring opportunities first in the U.S. market, and has hired a former Nokia executive to start operations in the U.S.

Azita Arvani will be general manager of Rakuten Mobile in the Americas, where she’ll build the company’s U.S. business and oversee its development, strategy and deployment, according to a press announcement.

Azita Arvani

 At Nokia, Arvani (pictured left) served as head of Innovation Partnering & Venture Management. She previously held leadership and advisory roles at Docomo, Xerox, Upek, and 6Wind.

 RELATED: Rakuten Mobile eyes global ambitions, readies for April launch in Japan

 “Rakuten Mobile is built for the cloud and will be the world’s first carrier operating a fully virtualized radio access network, or vRAN. The result is substantial reduction of capital investment and operation costs, flexible and fast deployment of new services, security, and significant savings to customers,” said Rakuten’s Amin in a statement. “At the same time that our Japan launch will mark a major milestone for the   telecommunications industry, we are also very excited about the outlook for Rakuten Mobile’s global future.”

 The U.S. government has been exploring alternatives to China’s Huawei, and the White House is expected to hold a 5G summit next month, an event likely to be attended by Rakuten. The Federal Communications Commission plans to hold a forum specifically on virtualized RAN for 5G, later this month.

The U.S. is also poised to get its own new mobile operator, with Dish Networks entering the scene as part of a deal related to T-Mobile and Sprint’s merger. Dish first plans to operate as an MVNO, but will be building out its a new 5G network compatible with open interfaces and has pointed to Rakuten’s architecture as a good model for the satellite TV provider.

Dish Chairman Charlie Ergen said last month that Dish has learned a lot from Rakuten’s greenfield open RAN build, noting that the Japanese operator is “designing the right kind of network for the future.”

“It gives us a really good template to say what did they do right,” said Ergen on Dish’s fourth-quarter earnings call. “Where does the marketplace advance from where they started working on, and how we use those things to our advantage?”

Under its build-out requirements, Dish’s network must cover 20% of the U.S. population by 2022 and 70% by June 2023.