The disruptive Japanese telco only launched 4G back in March, but is now targetting 70% coverage of Japan by the same time next year

When Rakuten Mobile exploded onto the Japanese telecoms scene, it was immediately clear that this was a company planning on doing things differently. Deploying an end-to-end fully virtualised, cloud-native mobile network, Rakuten said that its minimal reliance on traditional RAN hardware would lead to a far cheaper rollout, which in turn meant cheaper rates for customers. 
Indeed, the company announced an aggressive pricing scheme, undercutting its major rivals, even offering free year-long subscriptions for the first three million customers. Back in June, just two months since launch, Rakuten announced that one million applicants had applied for its unlimited LTE service, meaning a further two million could still be eligible for the free subscription package. 
Rakuten’s focus on virtualised RAN has also allowed it to rollout and upgrade its network rapidly. In June, the company said it had activated 5,739 base stations, with a further 7,487 under contract. On Tuesday, Rakuten CEO Mickey Mikitani said that the rollout was accelerating ahead of schedule; previous plans aimed for 96% population coverage by 2026, but the executive now believe this target could be hit as soon as next summer.
While the company’s LTE deployment continues to go from strength to strength, its 5G plans have faced set backs this year. 
Initially planned for commercial launch in June this year, the coronavirus pandemic has upset various supply chains, forcing back timelines. Nonetheless, the launch could be just around the corner, with CTO Tareq Amin saying that the operator plans to begin offering services in limited locations as soon as September.
Rakuten’s 5G network, like its 4G, will also be based on open RAN principles, meaning it will draw great attention from around the world. In June, Rakuten announced plans to develop its own standalone 5G core with NEC Corporation, which will ultimately be available on the Rakuten Communications Platform – the platform on which Rakuten hopes to offer connectivity services to countries beyond its native Japan. 
If Rakuten’s virtualised RAN experiment proves a success, it could have a major influence on operators around the world.
Also in the news: