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Rakuten to launch satellite-to-mobile service in Japan by 2026

Rakuten Mobile, Inc. announced its plans to provide satellite-to-mobile service in Japan targeting to start the service in 2026, with AST SpaceMobile (NASDAQ: ASTS), the company building the first and only space-based cellular broadband network accessible directly by everyday smartphones. The actual timing of the initiation of any such service and the scope of such service is uncertain and is subject to a number of factors, including those that are outside of the control of Rakuten and AST SpaceMobile.

The companies aim to provide direct satellite-to-mobile services that can be used not only for text messaging but also for broadband communication such as voice and video calls on commercially available smartphones.

In Japan, a country with a high risk of natural disasters and many remote islands and mountainous regions, there is a growing need for space-based communication services using Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites. These services are crucial when major disasters strike or when base stations and other network infrastructure suffer damage. During the Noto Peninsula Earthquake of 2024, recovery routes were cut off, causing a delay in the emergency response. LEO satellites will enable mobile phone connectivity irrespective of conditions on the ground. Rakuten Mobile and AST SpaceMobile will continue to work together with the goal of providing connectivity across Japan, including mountainous regions and remote islands, offering connectivity even in times of natural disasters.

Mickey Mikitani, Chairman and CEO of Rakuten Group and Chairman of Rakuten Mobile, commented, “Rakuten Mobile is committed to expanding mobile connectivity across Japan. 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.”

Under their strategic partnership*1 launched in March 2020, Rakuten Mobile and AST SpaceMobile have been working together on a planned space-based mobile service to provide service in Japan in the future using LEO satellites to provide direct communication with commercially available smartphones.

Following the launch of AST SpaceMobile’s LEO test satellite, BlueWalker 3, in September 2022*2, the two companies collaborated to complete the world’s first two-way voice calls April 2023*3, with direct calls from Midland, Texas to Tokyo, Japan using standard, unmodified smartphones. The calls were conducted in cooperation with four companies, including Vodafone and AT&T. In November 2022, Rakuten Mobile obtained preliminary experimental test station licenses for conducting mobile communication tests in Japan *4.

To date, AST SpaceMobile’s testing program has made history by successfully completing the world’s first 5G connection for voice and data between an everyday, unmodified smartphone and a satellite in space, achieved initial download speeds of 14 Mbps, and successfully made 4G video calls and 5G cellular broadband connections. These speeds, beyond supporting basic voice and text, enable internet browsing, downloading files, using messaging apps, streaming video, and more on everyday smartphones.

Rakuten Mobile and AST SpaceMobile will continue to work together with the goal of providing coverage across Japan, offering connectivity even in times of natural disasters.

CT Bureau

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