After less than two years in full-scale operation, Rakuten Mobile’s cellular network now covers 96% of Japan’s population.
At the time of full-scale commercial launch in April 2020, Rakuten Mobile coverage was concentrated primarily on Japan’s major population centers of Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya. But as population density falls, the task of reaching additional subscribers in more rural areas becomes progressively more challenging—after all, every connection requires the construction of a physical base station somewhere nearby.
At launch, the plans were to reach 96% population coverage by the end of March 2026. How then, did the team at Rakuten Mobile reach this milestone an astonishing four years early?
A human achievement
Rakuten Mobile’s innovative approach to network infrastructure undoubtedly played a role—namely, its software-centric philosophy that largely eliminates the dependence on hardware. This has allowed for the swift and efficient construction of simple and compact base stations.
But another major factor helping this rapid expansion is a different kind of network, which Rakuten has nurtured for the past 25 years—a network of human connections.
“I felt that increasing Rakuten Mobile’s market share would be nothing but a positive for the industry as a whole.”Masaru Takaki, Director, Maruichi supermarket
Rakuten Ichiba first launched in 1997 with a vision to empower small businesses around Japan, offering an easy way to take their stores online and into the digital age. Over 55,000 merchants – located everywhere from Hokkaido to Okinawa – currently sell on Rakuten Ichiba.
A similar story soon unfolded with online booking service Rakuten Travel, loyalty program Rakuten Points, and payments solutions Rakuten Edy and Rakuten Pay. Today, a huge number of businesses, large and small, in locations across Japan work with Rakuten in some capacity.
So, when the time came to assemble a mobile network covering an entire country, the Rakuten Mobile team already had an existing network to build upon, and that network came together in spectacular fashion.
Preparing for 5G with your rural supermarket
When supermarket chain Maruichi was founded in 1951, it began as a stationery store. It didn’t actually become a supermarket until 1962. The company now operates nine stores around the western prefecture of Miyazaki, and started offering e-money service Rakuten Edy as a payment option in 2015.
“We now have a branded point card that combines both Rakuten Edy and our own point program,” explains director Masaru Takaki. “Today, around 60% of payments are made through Rakuten Edy, and that’s including cash.”
“I’ve been using Rakuten Mobile since it was a virtual operator,” he reveals. “Cell phone plans in Japan were clearly more expensive than other countries… so when I heard Rakuten Mobile would be becoming its own mobile network operator, I thought, at last!”
When the Rakuten Mobile team reached out to talk about base stations, there was no hesitation from Takaki.
“In preparation not just for 4G, but for 5G in the future, we obviously need base stations,” he continues. “I felt that increasing Rakuten Mobile’s market share would be nothing but a positive for the industry as a whole. So I said, we have more stores. If you need to build more base stations, just say the word!”
Currently, Rakuten Mobile base stations stand atop three Maruichi properties.
“I think that constructing a stable, affordable 5G communications network is the most important thing in providing informational prosperity to all of Japan.”
Ichigo Fields Forever
The phrase ichigo ichie is often translated as a once in a lifetime encounter. The word ichigo, however, has another meaning: strawberry.
Based in the northeastern city of Sendai, the owners of strawberry farm Ichigo Ichie have put their own spin on the well-known phrase: every strawberry is a smile.
In addition to growing and selling strawberry products, the firm also offers strawberry picking experiences at three locations around Miyagi Prefecture. They began using Rakuten Pay for cashless payments in part thanks to the popularity of the local pro baseball team, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.
“We thought there would be quite a few customers around here with a level of trust and expectation for Rakuten services,” explains director Takumi Sato. “We considered all the options and decided Rakuten Pay would be the easiest.”
Sato was quick to respond to the Rakuten Mobile team’s request for base station collaboration.
“The base station itself is very compact and has no impact on our day-to-day business,” he reveals. “We hoped that by putting our hand up and having the base station installed as quickly as possible, we could contribute to both the Sendai community and Rakuten Mobile.”
Many other partners have supported the Rakuten Mobile team’s efforts, including seaweed merchants and shirt makers on Rakuten Ichiba, and a resort hotel on Rakuten Travel.