Tareq Amin, CTO, Rakuten Mobile
Internet access has become like food and water – an essential ingredient to a healthy, productive life. Back in 2011, the United Nations judged the internet as a key tool enabling human rights, allowing people to “exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression.” Fast forward a decade and Rakuten Mobile is taking a major step toward bringing anyone and everyone online: from April 2021, we will offer the people of Japan 1 GB of mobile data each month — free.
This is a groundbreaking move, one which I hope will set a precedent that will ultimately bring many more people online. Despite the efforts of some of the world’s biggest internet players to make connectivity more affordable, about two-fifths of the global population are not yet online. More alarming still, in the context of the pandemic, two thirds of the world’s school-age children – 1.3 billion kids – do not have an internet connection in their homes. That shocking statistic points to a disturbing waste of human potential. Lacking internet access hampers both the development of individual children and the progress of entire swaths of the human race.
Internet access has become like food and water – an essential ingredient to a healthy, productive life.
While some tech leaders are acting to improve internet access for the “underconnected,” efforts such as Facebook’s Free Basics have provided access to just a limited number of websites. In contrast, as of April this year, Rakuten Mobile will offer free access to the entire internet. With a 1GB monthly allowance, consumers will have the scope to access any online service they need to, whether that be health information, financial services, an education portal or another public service.
Transforming the economics of mobile
How can we offer free internet access? Rakuten Mobile is part of the broader Rakuten ecosystem that encompasses e-commerce, online finance, communications and digital content. We spread the cost of providing connectivity across a broad portfolio of services. Once a potential customer receives free connectivity, they might buy something from our internet shopping mall Rakuten Ichiba or sign up for a digital payment service. Members of the Rakuten ecosystem in Japan can access over 70 services ranging from payment to digital content and travel – through a single ID. For each purchase, they receive loyalty points that can be used on online services or in our partners’ offline shops, like the local convenience store. We are convinced that the additional business across our ecosystem of services will allow free connectivity to be sustainable.
The second reason we can offer free internet access builds on our revolutionary mobile network. Until now, a few vendors dominated mobile infrastructure, offering cost-consuming, vertical, top-down, proprietary systems. Rakuten Mobile has built and launched the world’s first large-scale commercial open-architecture network. Our network is constructed from off-the-shelf parts powered by cloud computing. Open RAN technologies give us the flexibility to separate the software from the hardware and to promote healthy competition between vendors, driving innovation and more attractive pricing to the customers. The new network’s advantages are clear: Our total cost of ownership is 40% lower than that of conventional mobile networks.
Can other telco operators follow suit?
There will come a time when operators beyond Japan will join us in offering free internet access and many more people will be able to get online.
Connectivity is fast becoming a commodity. Telcos everywhere need to recognize that and enrich their core product with services.
The journey we have embarked on has not always been an easy one. We brought a software-centric tech company mindset to tackling many issues that have not been tackled in the telco industry before. Our next step is to take these experiences and learnings and share them with other operators and enterprises through the Rakuten Communications Platform – to help them on their journey towards creating next generation networks. This platform will encompass both our disruptive network technologies and service layer – a digital enablement platform that will make it more straightforward for operators to rollout e-commerce propositions, online payments and other digital services in the future.
There will come a time when operators beyond Japan will join us in offering free internet access and many more people will be able to get online. For the billions of individuals that remain unconnected, let’s hope that time is near.