KDDI and Softbank join the network sharing craze as Rakuten risk rises

Japanese telcos KDDI and Softbank have inked a network sharing partnership to ease the commercial pressures of connectivity in the rural regions.

Network sharing agreements are becoming increasingly common, perhaps one of the more prominent trends of 2020, owing to the financial pressures being placed on the telcos. With 5G and full-fibre projects on the books for many telcos, deploying connectivity infrastructure in the more sparsely populated regions, were ROI is significantly lower, is a tricky spreadsheet to balance. Telcos are increasingly looking to network sharing partnerships, to ease the financial burdens of building the foundations of the digital economy.

The new company, which will be known as 5G Japan Co, will be managed by co-CEOs Noriaki Terao (seconded from KDDI) and Eiji Otaki (seconded from SoftBank). With each telco owning 50% of the company, the network will reach out into the rural regions to provide suitable densification of 5G base stations for the 28 GHz and 3.7 GHz airwaves.

While network sharing agreements to create a more attractive ROI are not uncommon, perhaps there is more demand in Japan than many other nations. These are telcos who may have to deal with a very significant disruption in the shape of Rakuten.

As the poster boy for the open movement, Rakuten is building a network as many telcos would love to; a greenfield project, completely disassociated from the concept of legacy technologies and systems. This sort of network deployment is a dream come true for any telco and has the potential to offer significant benefits.

Firstly, it has been claimed the network can be run with only 350 employees, a fraction of the workforce running competitors’ networks. Secondly, it could be significantly cheaper to construct, thanks to Rakuten’s embrace of the OpenRAN movement. And thirdly, due to the acceptance of openness, upgrades should be faster and cheaper. This is the sort of network which everyone would build if they could start from scratch tomorrow.

There is still plenty which could go wrong with Rakuten’s business. The network could fail, or it might not be as successful as hoped in teasing subscriptions away from rivals, but the threat is very real for the Japanese telco industry. With investments substantially reduced for network construction, maintenance and upgrades, the demands on ROI are lessened. Rakuten is suddenly afforded a lot more flexibility when it comes to pricing.

At the beginning of March, Rakuten unveiled its ‘UN-LIMIT’ 5G data tariff costing 2,980 Yen per month, roughly half of what rivals have been offering. What is worth noting is that when customers are out of range of a Rakuten owned base station, a 2 GB download limit will be introduced as well as data throttling. This will be a disadvantage for the telco as it is rolling out its network, though the risk of pricing disruption is very clear.

Reliance Jio in India has already demonstrated how a market can be turned upside-down if a disruptor is allowed to gather too much momentum. This is a lesson which the likes of KDDI, Softbank and NTT Docomo should be learning as Rakuten comes online; new initiatives will have to be introduced across operations to realise efficiencies.

Without these initiatives, network sharing partnerships being one, the traditional Japanese telcos will not be able to sustainably compete with the Rakuten tariffs.

Verizon sues City of Rochester over 5G fees

US telco Verizon has filed a lawsuit against the City of Rochester, suggesting a newly created telecommunications code violates federal law and the maximum fees telcos can be charged.

Filed in the District Court for Western New York, Verizon’s lawyers will be attempting to argue that the implementation of the new telecommunications code by the city will prohibit the rollout of 5G technologies in the area. This is of course early days, though it could go some way in creating legal precedent throughout the US.

Using FCC rules which were passed last September, Verizon will argue the newly adopted telecommunications code in the City of Rochester violates the maximum fee of $270 a year which can be charged by the local governments. Although we were unable to figure out how much each site could cost Verizon annually, it does appear to run into the thousands.

“To better serve its customers and the City and to begin to serve new customers and provide new services, Verizon Wireless seeks to extend, densify, and upgrade its wireless network infrastructure, including to install additional Small Wireless Facilities to support the provision of current and next-generation telecommunications services such as 5G and to deploy fiber to connect these facilities,” the filing states.

“To successfully do this, Verizon Wireless requires new approvals from Defendant to access City property.

“As a result of Defendant’s actions, Verizon Wireless has been, and will continue to be, damaged and irreparably harmed absent the relief requested herein. The harm caused by Defendant’s unlawful actions includes, but is not limited to, an effective prohibition on Verizon Wireless’s ability to provide telecommunications services in the affected area of the City.”

Similar to regulatory changes in the UK with the new Electronic Communications Code, the FCC is attempting to protect the interests of the telcos. As real-estate owners know the telcos have no choice but to increase the number of cell sites to provide the promised 5G experience to consumers, they are in a position of power. The new rules from the FCC, and the creation of the $270 annual limit, is supposed to create a responsible transaction which benefits both parties.

However, it does not appear the City of Rochester agrees with the position of the FCC. In creating its own telecommunications code, it does appear higher fees can be charged for cell sites, while some officials state they are attempting to reduce potential clutter and eyesores created by the additional mobile infrastructure.

Looking at the timeline, Verizon wrote to city officials to ask for revisions to the code on January 10 and February 7, before the code was enacted on February 20 without any amendments, taking effect on April 1. Another letter was sent on April 15 questioning whether the code was compliant with federal law, with city officials finally responding on April 30 suggesting they were happy with the set-up. On July 30, the city officials demanded payment from the telco.

In short, Verizon is claiming the fees are acting as a prohibitor to the delivery of connectivity in the city, therefore federal law is being violated.

What is worth noting, that due to the focus on mmWave for the delivery of 5G services in the US, more cell sites will have to be deployed. This is unavoidable, as to deliver the higher speed promised by 5G, higher-frequency airwaves will have to be utilised. This does not appear to be a problem, however coverage distance will have to be sacrificed leading to the densification plans set-forward by the telcos.

Although this is the first lawsuit of this nature which has been brought to our attention, we suspect there are numerous other local governments attempting to sweat public assets to secure more funding. This is one of the first, but this might become quite a common lawsuit to read about over the coming months and years, as densification strategies gather momentum.