Rakuten delays network launch to work out the bugs

Japan’s fourth mobile operator has said it will delay its launch, originally set for October 1, in favour of a limited trial for 5,000 users.

The announcement will put a dampener on the spirits of those who are closely watching developments in Japan. With the barriers set so high on entering the mobile connectivity game for new-comers, cash-rich technology companies will be looking for tips and tricks to develop their own game-plans, though this was not supposed to be part of the story.

“In order to ensure the stability and quality of its service for customers and continue to improve the network based on customer feedback and requests, the company will initially open applications to 5,000 subscribers free of charge through the Free Supporter Program,” the firm said in a statement.

The official launch of the service will now be at some point before 31 March 2020, with the Free Support Program set to conclude at that point. Those subscribers who are assisting with the network trial will continue to get free services through to 31 March however.

The trial will focus on Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya City and Kobe City, with KDDI and Okinawa Cellular to provide roaming services outside of these regions. Those on the trial will receive unlimited calls and data services through the period, in exchange for providing regular feedback to the telco.

The launch of Rakuten has caught the attention of many inside and outside of Japan for several reasons. In the country, consumers have had to deal with three providers to date and the introduction of a fourth player will provide additional competition, as well as a potential disruption to create a new status-quo when it comes to pricing. Just look at the impact Reliance Jio had on India to see the potential a new player can inspire.

Outside of Japan, there will of course be vendors rubbing their hands together in anticipation of a genuine greenfield project, though those who have an interest in muscling in on the connectivity game.

Starting with the vendors, this is a potential gold mine. If Rakuten is going to be competitive, it will have to get its network up-and-running very quickly. Aggressive network deployment and expansion to reduce the reliance on roaming requires some serious investment. The more success Rakuten can generate in the early days, the more quickly it will be able to mobilise investment to fuel further expansion.

And now for the disruptors. There will be several companies which will be keeping an eye on developments here, hoping to understand what works and what doesn’t when deploying a new network.

Dish is one company which falls into this category. Should the T-Mobile US and Sprint merger survive the legal challenges it is facing, Dish will become the fourth MNO in the US through acquiring the Boost prepaid brand from Sprint. It will then have to try and build its own network as quickly as possible.

There are of course other companies who have already declared their interest in the mobile connectivity game, 1&1 Drillisch in Germany for example, however internet companies have also been rumoured to be getting involved.

Amazon is the company which immediately comes to mind, a rumour about Amazon mobile is never too far away, however this is applicable to any internet firm which has a lot of money. Owning and managing a network is one way to make money, another opportunity to collect valuable data on consumers and a chance to own the relationship with the consumer end-to-end.

If Rakuten can prove an internet company can deploy an end-to-end fully virtualized, cloud-native network cost-effectively and in a timely manner, as well as attract the right people to manage the network to meet customer expectations, why wouldn’t others believe they can do the same.

Amazon has buckets of cash, as does Google, Facebook, Alibaba, Baidu or Microsoft. If Rakuten can do it, why couldn’t they? Or how about investment companies and venture capitalists who are always looking for a way to make money?

All four operators are awarded 5G licences in Japan, with security conditions attached

NTT DoCoMo, KDDI, Softbank, and Rakuten have all received the 5G licences they applied for, but they come with coverage obligations and security commitment.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications announced on 10 April (in Japanese) that all the four applicants have been awarded radio frequencies and licences to rollout 5G services. Each licensee is awarded 400MHz spectrum on the 28GHz frequency, while three of them are awarded 200MHz on 3.7GHz except Rakuten, which has requested 100MHz.

All the operators are going to roll out 5G services starting in 2020. NTT DoCoMo, KDDI and Softbank will launch the service in spring time, with Rakuten planning to open its service in June. The total investment planned by the operators to the end of 2024 amounted to Yen 1.6 trillion ($14.4 billion).

While both NTT DoCoMo and KDDI have pledged to cover over 90% of the country within five years, Softbank only plans to cover 64% of the country and Rakuten 56%. The minimum requirement from the government is serving every prefecture within two years, and at least 50% of the whole country within five years, calculated by the number of geographical blocks the networks will cover out of the total 4,500 blocks the Ministry divides the country into.

In addition to coverage requirement, the Ministry has also attached a dozen granting conditions (pp.16-17 of the summary, in Japanese), including commitments to expand optical fibre networks (#2), to improve safety measures to minimise outage during natural disasters (#3), to prevent interference of existing radio licensees (#7) etc.

The item that may raise eyebrows is Item 4 on the list, which requires the operators to “take appropriate cyber security measures including measures to respond to supply chain risks” (unofficial translation). It refers to earlier regulations including the “”Information and telecommunications network safety and reliability standards” published by the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications in 1987, “Common Standards Group for Information Security Measures for Government Agencies and Related Agencies” issued by the National Information Security Center (NISC) in 2018, and the cross-departmental “Agreement on IT procurement policy and procedures for goods and services” published on 10 December 2018.

The last two documents, though neither of them names any particular countries or brands to be excluded, have been broadly recognised as the Japanese government’s decision to ban companies like Huawei and ZTE from public sector procurements. By invoking these regulations, it may not be too much of a stretch to read it as a message to the operators to stop using equipment supplied by the Chinese vendors. This may not cause serious disruptions to the operators’ business though, as Softbank, the only operator that has Huawei equipment on its network, is already planning to swap for Ericsson and Nokia, Nikkei reported earlier.

Japanese 5G licensees

RCS is here to stay and doing well

RCS has been touted as a saviour when the SMS value has been destroyed by OTT messaging services, but without much success, but it may finally have find its moment.

Mavenir, the software company, presented on day 1 of MWC 2019, promoting its rich communication solutions offered by Rakutan. The key benefits, or the main use cases that RCS can differentiate from OTT messaging actually are less to do with taking consumers back to texting each other, or P2P messaging, but rather the communication between businesses and consumers, or A2P messaging.

This view is corroborated by Infobip, a Croatia-based messaging platform that provides aggregated OTT messaging services (e.g. WhatsApp, LINE, Viber, KakaoTalk, etc.) for their corporate clients, which the clients then can use for customer service and CRM. However, the company told Telecoms.com that its dominant business, which it has seen annual growth of between 30% and 40%, is SMS and RCS based services.

One of the use cases is helping businesses improve customer engagement. Despite that on feature comparison RCS is mostly playing catching up on OTT messaging services, SMS and RCS tramp OTTs in consumer trust. To quote Guilliaume Le Mener, Manevir’s SVP for Enterprise Business, RCS is a “clean channel”, not tarnished by the privacy scandals committed by Facebook and co, or the over monetisation by others. Research shared by Mavenir showed 97% of SMS / RCS are opened within 3 minutes.

In one case, Infobip was hired by Twitter to reengage the inactive users, after the social media giant failed the mission with its early efforts through email. Thanks to its rich features, RCS messages can enable users to explore the content directly. For those users on phones not compatible with RCS, brands can choose to fall back on SMS with a web line. The results were much more improved also owing largely to the capability of producing rich analytics to evaluate the campaign effectiveness and make quick decisions on any changes needed.

In addition to A2P messaging, RCS is also being used by brands to engage consumers in P2A, that is engaging directly with the brands through messaging. On the brand side the service can be handled by bots. This will then need to be supported by AI and analytics which will be another business opportunity for the RCS solution providers. With OTTs also actively moving into the P2A domains, again this is an area that operators need to have a stronghold for RCS before it is too late.

For Rakuten, RCS may be particularly meaningful, as, coming from an internet service and MVNO background, Rakuten has a big range of digital service tied to a user’s Rakuten ID. RCS will be a key instrument to maintain and strengthen customer engagement when it builds out its 5G network from ground up.