Rakuten Mobile plans to provide satellite-to-mobile services in Japan in 2026, using AST SpaceMobile as its partner.

Andrew Wooden

February 16, 2024

2 Min Read

The Japanese operator intends to plug into AST SpaceMobile’s space-based cellular broadband network, which is accessed directly by smartphones, and provide text messaging, voice and data services, with a target date of 2026.

We’re told that in Japan there is a particular and growing need for using Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites for comms in case base stations and other network infrastructure suffer damage, since it is a country with a high risk of natural disasters and many remote islands and mountainous regions.

The release goes on to recount how during the Noto Peninsula Earthquake of 2024, recovery routes were cut off causing a delay in the emergency response. LEO satellites, we’re told, will enable mobile phone connectivity irrespective of conditions on the ground.

"Rakuten Mobile is committed to expanding mobile connectivity across Japan,” said Mickey Mikitani, Chairman and CEO of Rakuten Group and Chairman of Rakuten Mobile. “Remote islands and mountainous regions present unique challenges that require innovative solutions, while the threat of natural disasters, coupled with the effects of climate change, has also heightened public awareness of the importance of mobile connectivity for daily life. We are proud to partner with AST SpaceMobile to bring their cutting-edge solutions to Japan by realizing satellite-to-mobile services, ensuring our customers would potentially enjoy mobile connectivity across Japan." 

AST SpaceMobile’s LEO test satellite BlueWalker 3 was launched in September 2022, and since then the two companies collaborated to complete two-way voice calls in April 2023, with direct calls from Midland, Texas to Tokyo, Japan using standard, unmodified smartphones. The calls were also conducted in cooperation with Vodafone and AT&T.

AST SpaceMobile’s testing program also claims to have successfully completed the world’s first 5G connection for voice and data between an everyday, unmodified smartphone and a satellite in space, with an initial download speed of 14 Mbps.  

It’s early days of course and who knows what new areas satellite comms will offer up in the future above and beyond an alternative to terrestrial based connectivity – but in its current iteration, the sector can sometimes seem like a solution looking for a problem when those pushing it get particularly animated describing their plans.

That’s leaving aside things like enabling emergency services to better locate people in remote locations or areas hit some natural disaster that may have otherwise taken out terrestrial towers, where the utility seems obvious. And to be  fair to Rakuten is the area they seem to be leading with for their push into space.  

About the Author(s)

Andrew Wooden

Andrew joins Telecoms.com on the back of an extensive career in tech journalism and content strategy.

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