Rakuten Mobile user experience dragged down by roaming – Tutela

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Tutela noted that a significant proportion of Rakuten subscribers get a throughput speed of 1 Mbps when roaming on KDDI's au network. (Rakuten)

Rakuten Mobile users experienced better quality on the operator’s own network in Japan compared to roaming on others, according to new analysis from Tutela. The report suggests throttling while roaming on au’s network dragged down Rakuten’s consistent quality score.  

In analysis of Rakuten’s mobile experience, Tutela showed that slow download speeds, especially when roaming, resulted in Rakuten’s overall user experiencing lagging well behind that of three other major operators NTT Docomo, Softbank and KDDI’s au.

However, faster upload speeds and better latency, as well as significant rate of adoption, “suggests that so far, the O-RAN deployment is working well,” according to Tutela.

Rakuten Mobile initially launched 4G LTE mobile service on its own network in April, and started offering 5G service at the end of September.

It’s still only offering non-standalone (NSA) 5G service in limited locations, which is anchored in an LTE core, but expects to offer standalone 5G in the second quarter of 2021.  

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Rakuten introduced comparatively low-cost service plans priced around $28. Eyes have been on network performance as Rakuten’s greenfield build was the first at-scale cloud-native virtualized RAN (vRAN) deployment using OpenRAN technology, alongside a bevy of vendors. The operator often cites its network architecture as a primary reason it can offer lower-cost service, thanks to savings related to reduced capital spending as well as operating costs for the virtualized network.

Tutela’s analysis of Rakuten’s mobile network performance so far includes more than 10 million mobile throughput and latency tests that were collected between April 8 and September 15.

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For the “Excellent Consistent Quality” metric, Rakuten came in well behind Japan’s three other operators, with a score of roughly 61%, versus between around 85-87% for its competitors. That score involves applications like 1080p video streaming, live mobile video broadcast, online gaming and HD video calls.

(Credit: Tutela)

Tutela suggested the significant difference could be a result of throttling when Rakuten users are roaming on KDDI’s au network, noting that a significant proportion of subscribers get a throughput speed of just 1 Mbps.

Breaking out users’ experience on Rakuten’s own network, versus just when roaming on others –  Rakuten performed much better, with consistent excellent quality about 73% of the time. That compares to a consistent excellent experience in around 54% of tests when Rakuten Mobile subscribers are riding on a different operator’s network.

Rakuten hasn’t launched its network extensively in Japan yet, and the report indicates users are largely concentrated where the network has been deployed, including Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya. The operator has set expectations for its network to cover 70% of Japan’s population by March 2021, and potentially 96% by next summer.

Tutela suggests Rakuten could become more competitive as coverage expands. That said, more than 45% of Rakuten subscribers’ time is spent on other operators’ networks, versus 54.75% on the Rakuten network.   

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“As users increasingly rely on a robust network performance during these unprecedented times, Rakuten’s superior performance on its own network may make it a competitor to watch out for once it gains considerable coverage in the country,” the report stated. “Having already reached 1 million subscribers within 3 months of its network launch, it may take over other operators in terms of market share due to affordable plans and better network quality.”