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

Rakuten executives this week laid out the company’s journey so far as it readies for the commercial launch of its virtualized 4G LTE mobile network in April, but noted its wireless ambitions aren’t confined to Japan.

“We intend to export what we have built outside of Japan as well,” said Rakuten’s chief executive and founder Mickey Mikitani, speaking during a livestream of a Qualcomm event that was held instead of a press event at MWC 2020. That show was cancelled earlier this month over concerns of COVID-19.

“Rakuten Mobile is not just about Japanese mobile network operator service, but we want to become – together with Qualcomm and others – [a] global MNO platform service,” continued Mikitani.

Mikitani did not provide additional details, but earlier in the presentation noted that Rakuten – an e-commerce giant that has created an ecosystem of other services it offers including online banking, mobile payments and messaging apps among others – had 1.4 billion global members in 2019.

Rakuten CEO Qualcomm event
Rakuten's Mikitani speaking at Qualcomm's 5G event. (Qualcomm)

Rakuten Mobile is also already Japan’s largest MVNO, initially riding on NTT Docomo’s network infrastructure.

Rakuten laid out its plans last year for its own mobile network, what it dubs “the world’s first end-to-end fully virtualized, cloud-native mobile network," originally targeting a launch date of October 2019.

RELATED: Rakuten builds a greenfield wireless network in Japan

Although it’s hit some delays, Mikitani and CTO Tareq Amin, both speaking at Qualcomm’s event, stressed that its approach for an open and virtualized network is in no way “pie in the sky,” and its 4G LTE network is ready for commercial launch on April 8 in Japan. 

“It is absolutely real,” said Amin of the virtualized mobile network. “It’s delivering capacity that is unprecedented, it’s delivering cost savings that’s unimaginable.” He noted those savings are not only related to cellular capital expenditures, but to operating expenditures, with only 130 people on Rakuten Mobile’s network operation team today.

Amin reiterated that one of the most fundamentally different aspects of Rakuten’s network is the virtualized radio access portion, which in contrast to core infrastructure, is where billions of dollars are usually spent.

RELATED: Rakuten Mobile tees up 5G OpenRAN trial in Singapore

Rakuten has previously named a variety of vendor partners including Qualcomm, Altiostar, Nokia, Cisco, Intel, Red Hat, OKI, Fujitsu, Ciena, NEC/Netcracker, Mavenir, Quanta Cloud Technology, Sercomm, Tech Mahindra, Allot, Innoeye and Viavi.

The network is built on standardized open interfaces and disaggregated software. Amin credited Nokia for opening up its remote radio head interfaces to Altiostar, saying the decision “was not trivial.”

Rakuten is deploying small cell infrastructure developed by another vendor partner, Airspan Networks, which uses Qualcomm’s FSM Small Cell 4G Platform. The technology chief said a Qualcomm-powered 5G NR millimeter wave distributed radio unit is expected to be live in March, capable of 9.6 Gbps speeds. That platform, the virtualized Air5G OpenRange28, was also created by Airspan and utilizes Qualcomm's FSM100xx 5G chipset. 

Rakuten aims to have 4,400 base stations live by its April launch. It currently has more than 3,200 base stations on air in Tokyo, which Amin called one of the most dense network architectures deployed.

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A slide Rakuten's Amin shared showing the number of cell sites on air. (Rakuten)

“A network in which all components play very well with each other,” which he said is possible for a simple reason. “We control the software layer across macro, micro, small cell, Wi-Fi, and they are unified. They’re working as one heterogenous unit, harmonious in terms of what it needs to do.”

Distance between cell sites is approaching less than 200 meters, and he likened site activation to a Wi-Fi deployment, taking roughly 8 minutes. That contrasts to a 3-day process for a traditional macro base station sites, according to Amin.

“There’s no longer a debate, does this work or not, we’ve achieved a capacity level that is really unprecedented on what you could do in maximizing throughput per sector, capacity per sector,” he said.

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

Rakuten started a trial period in October 2019 with 5,000 participants and expanded to an additional 20,000 in late January. It’s also built its own credit-card sized smartphone called the Rakuten Mini, and intends to launch its Rich Communications Services (RCS) app called Link. Rakuten intends to position Link as its main communication channel.  

Amin said the company’s network is currently achieving 99.7% availability, 99.4% accessibility, and 99.8% retainability, adding he believes Rakuten Mobile is on a trajectory toward 100% reliability.

Eyes will be on the April launch, including forthcoming U.S. wireless entrant Dish, which has cited Rakuten as a good template for the satellite operator’s own planned 5G network build.