Building a new mobile network from scratch is no walk in the park. To reach a population of over 120 million, you need antennas. Lots of antennas.
Just over two years ago, Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications gave Rakuten the green light to build the country’s fourth major mobile carrier network. Chasing what many said was an impossible deadline, Rakuten hit the ground running.
The ambitious network construction plan attracted a healthy dose of skepticism from industry pundits, doubtful that a new operator could go from zero to launch in the space of just two years. Building the physical infrastructure required to achieve national cellular coverage — and finding the right locations to put all those antennas, or base stations — is nothing to scoff at.
This can be particularly complicated in areas such as Tokyo, where not only is population density high, but high-rise buildings and underground labyrinths form a tightly-packed environment. This means that operators need to negotiate with thousands of landowners and building managers for rooftop space to install their devices — often competing with other mobile operators for position.
All of this is, without doubt, a time-consuming process. But as April 2020 rolled around and Rakuten Mobile commercially launched to the public, the skeptics are quietly fading away. What happened?
A deep history of partnering with small- and medium-size enterprises
The answer lies in Rakuten’s two decades of partnering with small- and medium-sized businesses around Japan. Launched in 1997, Rakuten Ichiba’s founding mission was based on using the power of the internet to empower businesses — especially those in depopulated rural areas left behind by mass migration to large cities. Today, some 50,000 merchants from across the country populate the Rakuten Ichiba marketplace.
Meanwhile, since its launch in 2001, the Rakuten Travel platform has worked to connect travelers with hotels, hot springs, ryokan (Japanese-style inns) and all kinds of leisure facilities. These are just two of more than 70 different online services Rakuten run in Japan based on a similar core philosophy. The result is a grassroots network of tens of thousands of small- and medium-sized Japanese businesses, with many relationships that span decades.
The understanding and cooperation of many of those businesses is at the heart of the national rollout of Rakuten’s mobile network infrastructure. Here are just a few of those key partners:
Sheraton Grande Tokyo Bay Hotel: Making connections
The Sheraton Grande Tokyo Bay Hotel — an official hotel of one of Japan’s most popular theme parks — has been registered with Rakuten Travel since 2004. Located in Chiba Prefecture, just east of Tokyo, it’s a hotspot of activity for those enjoying the local parks, and an important spot for Rakuten Mobile’s network coverage.
“We welcome guests from both Japan and all over the world, and I think for us it’s very important that people can connect,” says General Manager Richard Suter. “Connect with our team here, connect with Rakuten and connect with people at home. Because they want to share the beautiful resort we have here; they want to share their experience. And that’s why we think it’s very important that we can work together with Rakuten and provide them with the space for the antennas.”
Suter is aware of the value of shared philosophy in partnerships. “Rakuten has always been a very active player here in Japan and in creating new frontiers. Just like here at Sheraton, we want to be at the forefront of new things, and that’s why we work very close together with Rakuten.”
CHOYA: High quality dress shirts for over 130 years
CHOYA have designed, manufactured and sold dress shirts using high quality Japanese fabric since 1886. “More than 90% of our business is wholesale,” says sales manager Keita Matsuoka. “We decided to expand our online operations, and Rakuten seemed to have the most expertise in the area.”
After a decade-long sales partnership, CHOYA agreed to support the new business with the installation of a base station atop their office in eastern Tokyo. “We have an e-commerce consultant from Rakuten who gives us advice and keeps us on track for our sales targets. It was that consultant who proposed we set up a Rakuten Mobile base station — that made it a much easier process.”
Re Earth: Authentic seaweed goodies from northeastern Japan
Specializing in seaweed products from the seaside village of Jusanhama in the northern Miyagi Prefecture, Re Earth joined Rakuten Ichiba back when merchants numbered in the hundreds. “We’ve been selling on Rakuten Ichiba since 1998,” says store manager Arata Takahashi. “They came and told us, ‘On Rakuten Ichiba, even your local greengrocer can sell to customers all around the country.’ I suppose our CEO thought it was an interesting idea and signed us up.”
“We’re just a small shop in a residential area, but today we have regular customers from Hokkaido all the way to Okinawa.”
For Takahashi, helping out with Rakuten’s new initiative was a no-brainer. “We’re in the tallest building in the area. We’ve worked with Rakuten for 20 years, so we want to do what we can.”