Rakuten starts service on yet-to-be-built 700MHz network

Rakuten starts service on yet-to-be-built 700MHz network while China Broadnet, another mobile newcomer, has rolled out 600,000 basestations.

Robert Clark, Contributing Editor, Special to Light Reading

July 2, 2024

3 Min Read
Tokyo, Japan.
So far, reports suggest only one Tokyo basestation has been upgraded to 700MHz.(Source: Batchelder/Alamy Stock Photo)

If there's a lesson from Rakuten's foray into mobile, it's never bring a technology solution to a price fight.

The company, Japan's biggest ecommerce player, has been paddling furiously since its debut four years ago, racking up billions of dollars in losses.

A certain amount of this was self-inflicted by its aggressive pricing, drawing a sharp response from its three big rivals. The industry is only now returning to (modest) profit.

But in Rakuten's telling, its competitiveness was always predicated on its pioneering cloud-based network. These may deliver lower costs and greater agility, but they don't drive financial performance for a telco coping with high capex and a handful of low-ARPU subs.

Rakuten seems to have staunched the worst of the bleeding in the past year, getting some subscriber traction and striking an improved roaming deal with KDDI. It recorded an operating loss of 71.9 billion Japanese yen ($440 million) in the March quarter, down from 103 billion yen the previous year.

It has achieved some scale with its 1.7GHz band rollout, deploying 17,000 basestations and reaching 99.9% of the population – the same as its rivals.

One basestation so far

Now it's adding a complementary build-out in the 700MHz band, a spectrum band loved by telcos for its long range and strong signal. It's important in Japan less for its reach than its ability to penetrate subways and skyscrapers to ensure contiguous coverage across the country’s vast urban expanses. 

Rakuten announced the start of commercial service last week, saying its cloud-native Open RAN network allowed it to deploy 700MHz and 1.7GHz on a single antenna.

It is vague about just how far the 700MHz coverage stretches, but according to local tech news service IT Media, so far it's upgraded just one Tokyo basestation.

In another engineering announcement, Rakuten said it had boosted the capacity of its 1.7GHz basestations in Tokyo by 130% by limiting satellite interference, enabling it to boost transmission power. 

It is progressively increasing its 5G signal across the Osaka and Kobe region, helping it to grow coverage by 60% by year-end.

Rakuten is not the only Asian mobile newcomer to deploy on 700MHz. But the experience of the Chinese operator China Broadnet, could hardly be different.

The company, backed by the National Radio & TV Administration, started service two years ago on 700MHz digital dividend frequencies returned by its broadcast affiliates.

It was fortunate enough to be paired with China Mobile, which bore much of the cost of the network rollout and provides roaming access to its own inventory of some 4 million basestations, including 600,000 in the 700MHz band.

China Broadnet now claims 23.6 million 5G users, impressive anywhere else in the world though only a small dent in a market of 1.76 billion mobile and 889 million 5G users.

The company doesn't publish any financial numbers but is probably even further away from profit than Rakuten. While it doesn't have investors breathing down its neck, it is supervised by government officials anxious to develop new media services and mobile technologies.

Right now it is focusing on developing video-centric applications such as 5G NR broadcasting and 5G new calling, and working with manufacturers that can make devices to support its services.

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About the Author(s)

Robert Clark

Contributing Editor, Special to Light Reading

Robert Clark is an independent technology editor and researcher based in Hong Kong. In addition to contributing to Light Reading, he also has his own blog,  Electric Speech (http://www.electricspeech.com). 

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