Rakuten released its Q1 2023 results earlier this month. Mobile segment revenue increased 25.7% YoY to $710 million but was down 11.5% sequentially compared to Q4 2022. Operating loss improved 22.4% to $760 million YoY with a smaller 4.7% improvement sequentially compared to Q4 2022.
Improving Customer Experience
In the short term, improving network quality is Rakuten’s main priority. Following a recent customer survey, Rakuten has launched several initiatives to improve customer experience, most of which will be resolved by a new roaming agreement with KDDI – which includes access to the latter’s sub-1GHz spectrum for the first time. This should improve coverage, particular in-doors such as in the home and in high-traffic shopping malls, as well as underground in subways, tunnels, etc. However, Rakuten urgently needs to build its own low-band networks – i.e. in the so-called “platinum” band – starting probably in early 2024.
Selling the Family Silver
Rakuten is still in a precarious situation financially and is in the process of selling more of the family silver to fund its mobile network roll-out. This includes IPOs and the sale of stakes in some non-core assets, for example, the Seiyu supermarket chain. The company has also pushed back its target date to become profitable from the end of 2023 to an unspecified time in 2024.
Challenges of Rolling Out Greenfield Networks
Rakuten’s experience over the past three years illustrates the challenges of rolling out a greenfield network in a mature market and the time, effort and investment required to achieve coverage and reliability on a par with better-heeled rivals. Indeed, many of these challenges have nothing to do with the choice of network architecture, i.e. open RAN. As a result, there are many lessons here for Dish and 1&1 Drillisch.
The silver lining for Rakuten, perhaps, is that it is primarily a tech company and its Rakuten Symphony division is starting to deliver meaningful revenues, which are projected to accelerate during 2023. Dish and 1&1 Drillisch do not have that luxury!
Exhibit 1: Summary of Rakuten’s Customer Churn Survey
The full version of this insight report, including all highlights and viewpoints is published in the following report “Rakuten Unveils Plan To Boost Subscriber Growth” available to clients of Counterpoint Research’s 5G Network Infrastructure Service (5GNI).
Dish launched commercial services in its first market, Las Vegas, in early May. Known as Project Genesis, the service costs $30 per month for unlimited data, text and voice services. Dish plans to run Genesis as an extended beta mode service for the next few months, using early adopters to provide feedback in order to improve the network’s robustness.
Dish’s Hits First FCC’s Milestone
Dish was required to provide 20% population coverage in 27 markets by June 14th as part of its regulatory commitments. Last week, the company provided confirmation that this first hurdle had indeed been achieved, adding that the Project Genesis service is now available in 120 cities in the US. However, the service offered on Dish’s network is essentially a data-only service in most markets – which nevertheless satisfies the FCC’s requirements – with voice services provided by Dish’s MVNO partners. Counterpoint Research understands that this is due to difficulties encountered in implementing seamless call transfers between the VoNR technology used on Dish’s 5G SA network and VoLTE used on partner networks. However, Dish claims that these issues have now been resolved in Las Vegas. In addition, Project Genesis offers a hotspot data service costing $20 per month. Both services are only available directly via Dish and is currently limited to just three devices: Samsung’s Galaxy S2, Motorola’s Edge+ and a 5G hotspot router from NetGear.
Falling Subscribers and Revenues
At its recent Analyst Day, Dish announced ambitious plans to increase its mobile subscriber base from just over 8 million today to 30-40 million by 2030. However, unlike its brethren Rakuten in Japan, Dish is losing subscribers and revenues are falling steadily, including in its core pay-TV business (Exhibit 1). Dish has been adversely impacted by T-Mobile’s accelerated CDMA shut down, both in terms of lost subscriber revenues, as well as incurring unexpected extra costs. To make matters worse, the company is still waiting approval from the Department of Justice (DOJ) on its joint agreement with T-Mobile relating to the CDMA shutdown.
However, this week Dish announced a new 5-year roaming deal with T-Mobile worth a minimum of $3.3 billion. Under this agreement, Dish expects to gain around 100,000+ additional Boost-branded customers as well as receive some “financial assistance” from T-Mobile. Again, this new deal requires approval from the DOJ, which is scheduled for mid-August. In recent months, uncertainty surrounding the DOJ’s approval has hindered the company’s ability to retain customers, as the worsening churn rate in Exhibit 1 shows. Clearly, Dish will be hoping that this latest deal will be approved as quickly as possible so that it can draw a line under this saga and move on.
Exhibit 1: Dish Wireless Customers and Churn Rate (3Q 2020 to 1Q 2022)
Capex, Cash Flow and Debt
With Dish’s 5G network likely to be in extended beta mode at least until the end of the year, revenues from the network will be limited. At the same time, the company’s aggressive 5G network during the next 12 months will result in high capex expenditure and coupled with declining revenues from its existing MVNO and pay-TV businesses may put pressure on cash flow. This may affect Dish’s ability to refinance the $1.5 billion of debt maturing in March 2023. Dish also needs to participate in the upcoming 2.5 GHz Auction 108 as it has less mid-band spectrum than its main rivals. However, tightening cash flows may limit its participation.
Extending Network Coverage
Deploying a 5G network using new open RAN technologies is no mean feat and the news that Dish has successfully hit its first FCC coverage target is therefore impressive. However, the company is still at the beginning of its 5G wireless journey and faces numerous challenges. Clearly, extending coverage will be its first priority. Its three biggest rivals today cover around 230-310 million people in the US, which will have risen by the time Dish reaches its statutory 70% coverage target in mid-2023.
However, Dish needs to quickly expand its 5G footprint for commercial as well as regulatory reasons, as its current limited 5G footprint will hinder its ability to compete in the retail market. This will involve deploying at least 15,000 radio sites nationally, and probably significantly more, in order to properly densify its network. Networks take time to deploy and there are always unforeseen problems, particularly with new technologies, as the issues with VoNR have shown. This is not likely to be the last such issue. In the meantime, Dish will have to rely on its MVNO partners and pay roaming costs.
Retail vs Enterprise Market
New entrants such as Dish cannot seriously compete in the retail wireless market until the user experience on its network is on a par with rivals. There are other issues too. Dish lacks a notable brand presence in the retail mobile market and currently only offers a limited number of devices. It also needs to build up its smartphone distribution channels. Clearly, these are early days and all these issues can and no doubt will be rectified – but it will take time.
As a result, Counterpoint Research believes that Dish’s commercial focus in the short-term will be on the enterprise market, where its limited network coverage may not be a problem for some companies. For example, Dish could start to offer campus wireless type private networks which could be connected to its MVNO partners’ public networks, if required. Spectrum leasing is another major opportunity, and to a lesser extent, the rural fixed wireless market, where there are synergies with its existing pay-TV business. Here, Dish could conceivably use its 12 GHz band frequencies. However, that is a contentious topic perhaps best saved for another day!
With only 310,000 new users added during the 1Q 2022 (slightly more than Q4) Rakuten Mobile’s most pressing challenge is to boost subscriber growth. At its recent earnings call, the company unveiled numerous service initiatives, which interestingly included plans to target the business/enterprise market starting in October.
Leveraging the Rakuten Digital Ecosystem
Several initiatives to boost subscriber growth are planned during the next few months, including a new pricing plan with a focus on increasing the number of paying users. In addition, Rakuten plans to launch a series of points-based marketing campaigns designed to leverage synergies between its mobile business and other Rakuten digital services businesses.
In contrast to its rivals, Rakuten owns its own digital services ecosystem, which includes e-commerce services, banking, payment platforms, streaming video services and insurance, with around 36 million active users per month. In fact, the company claims that the main motivation behind building its own mobile network is to capitalize on the ecosystem synergies between its digital services. Rakuten thus regards mobile connectivity as an enabler to engage users in its wider digital ecosystem and the company hopes that leveraging these synergies will be more fruitful than monetization via connectivity alone. At a previous earnings call, Rakuten shared data showing the proportion of new mobile subscribers who started using Rakuten’s other digital services (e.g. Rakuten Ichiba, Card, etc.) within 12 months of subscribing to Rakuten Mobile (Exhibit 1, upper diagram).
Exhibit 1: Leveraging the Rakuten Digital Ecosystem
Rakuten also claims that this cross-marketing of services is starting to have an impact on revenues. For example, the company reported that the average annual Gross Merchandise Sales (GMS) per user for mobile users using its Ichiba e-commerce platform was 67% higher after 12 months compared to just 20% higher for non-mobile users (Exhibit 1, lower diagram). From July, the company also plans to launch a points-based, cross-business marketing campaign, in which various digital services will be offered for free on a trial basis with the award of loyalty points.
With most of its 4G network deployed, Counterpoint Research believes that Rakuten Mobile’s financials should start to improve during the second half of 2022 helped by cost reductions due to lower roaming costs, lower capex expenditures and to some extent boosted by increasing revenues at its Symphony telecom platform.
Rakuten also needs to continue deploying its 5G network, which will require a much denser network than 4G. Although 2Q capex may well be less than the $1.1 billion expenditure in 1Q, Counterpoint Research believes that infrastructure spending will remain high throughout 2022 and into 2023 as Rakuten continues deploying 5G radios throughout its network. In contrast to its open-RAN brethren Dish, however, Rakuten has been reporting steadily increasing mobile revenues for several months, which the company claims will be boosted significantly by revenues from its Symphony telco business from the end of 2022 onwards.
In addition, Rakuten plans to launch a FWA broadband service on both its sub-6GHz and millimetre wave frequencies starting in December as well as a FTTH service, thus making Rakuten a fixed broadband service provider. With its extensive fibre transport network across Japan, Rakuten certainly has the capacity to offer FTTH services and continues to invest in expanding the network’s capacity. For example, in a recent test with Nokia, it achieved speeds of 1 TB/s per channel over its DWDM fiber network, an increase of 5X compared to existing 200 Mb/s transmissions.
Drive To Profitability Starts Now
In commercial terms, Rakuten’s market debut to date has been disappointing, particularly when compared to new entrants using conventional infrastructure. But with its 4G network now covering 97% of the Japanese population – and presumably offering a comparable user experience to rivals – it looks as if the company is about to embark on its first serious attempt to boost subscriber growth. Rakuten is first and foremost an Internet services company with its own digital ecosystem – an advantage that rival CSPs lack. The key question therefore is: how much of a differentiator could this really turn out to be? Although initial results shown in Exhibit 1 look promising, most of the marketing initiatives will not be launched until July and hence the full impact on subscriber and revenue growth will probably not become apparent until the end of 2022 or later.
Responding to Competitive Threats
During the next few months, Rakuten needs to demonstrate serious traction in boosting subscribers and provide investors with a credible path to profitability in its mobile business. However, Japan is an extremely competitive market and Rakuten’s deep-pocketed rivals will not be slow to respond to any new competitive threat. Already competitors are taking advantage of Rakuten’s decision to terminate its popular zero-yen plan, with KDDI’s Povo – where subscribers pay for data used rather than a flat fee – benefiting the most. Competition in the 5G market is likely to intensify as Rakuten expands its marketing initiatives across Japan. Although its mobile business will benefit from revenues from its Symphony business, the road to profitably is likely be a long haul and may take many years. Meanwhile, in the short- and possibly medium-term, Rakuten will need to raise further funds, particularly if it intends to undertake a sustained marketing campaign.
T-Mobile, the #2 carrier in the US by subscribers, held a “5G Forward” event to unveil some updates on its new 5G innovation lab in Bellevue, Washington. The company also announced new 5G partnerships. Other carriers, such as Verizon and AT&T, also have innovation labs. In the past, T-Mobile has been behind other major operators when it came to pushing new applications. The moves and investments announced at the event seek to correct this. Some of the key announcements:
There are new 5G applications en route. More immediately, aggressive 5G rollouts are needed to simply keep up with data usage increases. 50% of T-Mobile’s data traffic is now over its 5G network. Since the 5G network launch, streaming and video data usage is up twofold, gaming is up fivefold and hotspot data usage is up threefold.
In the US, FWA net additions are higher than fiber broadband net additions. But the full potential of FWA is yet to be unleashed as all of the 5G mid-band spectrum has not been lit up. mmWave rollouts also continue. T-Mobile has many options – inner city, suburbs and rural areas – where FWA services would be welcome.
T-Mobile announced its ‘T-Mobile DevEdge’ program. The goal is to lower the costs for application developers. By lowering costs and speeding time-to-market, T-Mobile will be able to offer more 5G services. Available to application developers today are:
New, state-of-the-art innovation lab in Bellevue, Washington. App developers will be able to work side by side T-Mobile engineers.
Pre-certified chipsets, modules and devices. This early access for testing will help reduce time-to-market.
Streamlined IoT certifications. In the past, it had taken over a year to certify an IoT device. Developers can now work earlier with T-Mobile engineers and work within a roadmap of IoT certifications.
Access to APIs. Developers can get direct access to T-Mobile’s network and developer kits at limited to zero costs. This will help applications take advantage of edge compute, network slicing, and IoT connections.
T-Mobile is especially excited about smart factory, robotics, drones and AR/VR/Hologram developments. Some of the AR/VR applications T-Mobile hopes to incubate include education and training use cases (think ability to ‘virtually’ see a manual or complete engine block while repairing an item in the field).
New partners announced:
T-Mobile and Qualcomm have partnered to focus on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Spaces XR development platform. This will help developers with positional tracking, image recognition and tracking, plane detection, spatial mapping and meshing, and scene understanding (floors, walls, ceilings and other physical space). Developers focusing on areas such as metaverse, cloud gaming, 8k streaming, edge cloud and crowded network optimization applications will find it useful. It is important to have Qualcomm involved early to assist application developers.
Qualcomm is a key partner for “5G Forward” for many reasons. It has close partnerships with Meta and Microsoft, two major players in AR/VR/Metaverse. In addition, it has created a $100-million Metaverse fund for XR developers.
Disney StudioLAB has partnered with T-Mobile stating it understands that there will be radical changes in how subscribers consume or watch media. It is a five-year partnership working on new, immersive experiences consumers could consume over T-Mobile’s 5G network, like ‘virtual presence’, mixed reality entertainment. The partnership does not just cover new experiences for consumers, it will also help Disney StudioLAB produce content. The media creator will be able to virtually scout remote movie locations or transfer video content in real time from remote locations over T-Mobile’s 5G network.
Red Bull-T-Mobile collaboration is expanding. Red Bull will be using T-Mobile’s 5G network during outdoor sporting events where it will be using drones to broadcast events. Red Bull will also be tracking competitor heart rate, acceleration, and position on course to make events more consumer-friendly to watch at home.
Venture funding increases: T-Mobile is investing in early and emerging growth companies. It has also made investments in two key companies. SignalWire, a software-defined telecom apps company, is the first company T-Mobile has invested in. It specializes in communication APIs. The second company is Spectro Cloud, a cloud infrastructure company. T-Mobile Ventures has participated in Spectro Cloud’s $40-million Series B funding round. This investment focuses on removing barriers in implementing cloud infrastructure.
T-Mobile has a window where it is leading US operators in 5G rollouts. It plans to exploit this lead by investing and rolling out new 5G applications as fast as possible. Strong move and it will be interesting to watch what AT&T, Verizon, US Cellular and DISH bring.
With three greenfield operators – Rakuten, Dish and 1&1 Drillisch – at various stages of deploying their open RAN, cloud-native 5G networks, 2022 could turn out to be a pivotal year for the mobile telecoms industry. However, all three will need to overcome significant challenges during the year.
Rakuten: Subscriber Growth Challenge
Rakuten’s most pressing challenge is to ramp up subscriber growth and demonstrate that an open RAN, multi-vendor network operator can compete against incumbents in a very competitive and mature market. The operator maintains that it will break-even by the end of 2023. Using a conservative target of 20 million subscribers, Counterpoint Research estimates that Rakuten needs to at least double its 4Q 2021 subscriber acquisition rate consecutively every six months in order to do this (Exhibit 1). This would involve adding more than 4 million subscribers in the last quarter of 2023. This can only happen with a concerted marketing campaign – which costs money!
On its earnings calls, Rakuten has repeatedly stated that it has no plans to initiate a marketing campaign. Counterpoint Research speculates that there may be several reasons for this:
Network coverage – despite reaching 96% 4G population coverage, it still lags its rivals, all of whom offer 99% coverage, perhaps a deciding factor for customers who frequently roam outside Japan’s metropolitan areas. Also, some cell densification will probably be required to iron out any remaining network problems. Clearly, the last thing Rakuten needs is a backlash from consumers if coverage and reliability are not up to scratch across the whole network!
High capex spending – despite plans for an IPO of its banking business plus some investment asset disposals, Rakuten’s finances are already stretched due to high mobile infrastructure capex. Success in the retail market will require a lot of investment and an expensive marketing campaign at this time might not go down well with the financial markets.
Exhibit 1: Subscriber Growth Path to Reach Break-Even by 2023
As a result, Rakuten may be biding its time. Nevertheless, at some point it will need to commit to marketing if it is going to have any hope of achieving success in the retail market. Although it offers the lowest-priced data packages, particularly for high data users, lower pricing alone does not seem to be sufficient to attract customers in their droves. This may be due to the lack of marketing but also because the number of customers interested in high-data packages at present is limited. However, this will inevitably change with the transition to 5G. And Rakuten is confident that it will benefit, as it believes that it will be able to offer much more competitive pricing than rivals due to its network cost advantages.
Dish: Imminent Deployment Targets
For Dish, the major challenge in 2022 is network deployment. In fact, network planning and deployment is a major challenge for any greenfield operator, whether traditional or open RAN, with many factors, for example, spectrum availability, outside their control. In addition, negotiations with tower companies – often involving 20-year leases – are complex and invariably take longer than expected. For greenfield operators deploying new, untested technologies, there is the additional challenge of integrating and optimizing all the new infrastructure.
At its recent earnings call, Dish maintained that it will satisfy regulatory requirements and launch commercial services in all its 27 markets by the 14th of June. However, with just over 10 weeks remaining, this looks increasingly unlikely. Counterpoint Research understands that Dish’s agreement with the FCC makes allowances for issues outside its control – such as supply chain problems – which would allow for timelines to be adjusted. An FCC extension therefore looks likely!
1&1 Drillisch: At the Network Planning Stage
Meanwhile Drillisch also looks as if it will struggle to meet its 1,000 radio site deployment target by the end of the year. The German MVNO has a regulatory requirement to provide 25% population coverage by 2025 and 50% by 2030. A complicating factor is the expected auction of 800 MHz band spectrum in Germany in 2026. Acquiring some of this low-band, high coverage spectrum would help Drillisch reduce its number of radio sites. However, there is no guarantee that it will be successful. Clearly, this makes business planning more difficult and may lead to additional delays.
A Window of Opportunity?
Greenfield operators have a window of opportunity to leverage their network advantage to capture 5G market share. However, with legacy CSPs fast migrating to cloud-native 5G, the clock is ticking for all three. Rakuten has barely started mainstream deployment of its 5G network while the other two are still on the starting blocks!
Rakuten and Dish are pioneering the development of open, cloud-native 5G multi-vendor networks and operate in highly competitive and mature markets. Although with very different backgrounds, both are broadly similarly sized companies with established businesses. Both initially joined the mobile market as MVNOs and are at varying stages of deploying their own network infrastructure. However, there are also many important differences between the two companies, particularly with respect to their network architectures and vendor ecosystems.
Rakuten vs Dish
Rakuten has deployed a 4G network and ultimately intends to migrate all customers to a cloud-native 5G SA network. Dish will deploy a 5G SA core-based network from day 1. Rakuten has developed its own telco cloud with all network functions deployed at its own data centres located at various Rakuten premises. In contrast, Dish is adopting an “off-prem” model with the whole network running on AWS data centres, at least initially.
Rakuten relies mostly on single vendors with a heavy emphasis on its own in-house developed technologies and acquisitions. It also has ambitions to become a telco platform provider generating revenues from its software and technology expertise. Dish has generally adopted a dual-vendor strategy to avoid reliance on a single supplier. Although early days, Dish could conceivably follow Rakuten’s lead in time and similarly launch its own services platform.
Rakuten: Subscribers and Network Coverage
At the end of September, Rakuten Mobile had 5.1 million subscribers, having added just 2 million subscribers during the past 12 months, despite the recent expansion of its 4G network. In a country with a population of over 125 million, this is hardly a huge amount. In contrast, market leader NTT DoCoMo has more than 83 million subscribers.
Management still maintains – probably to alleviate investor concerns – that Rakuten will break even by 2023. It thus has a 12 to 18-month window to dramatically increase subscriber acquisitions. Offering much cheaper tariffs, the company is banking on consumers switching en-masse from bigger rivals, as well as finally being able to hit its 96% network coverage target in early 2022. However, in a largely cost insensitive market and with notoriously fickle consumers, will this be enough to attract sufficient new subscribers? Although the break-even target now apparently includes revenues from its telco software platform Symphony – perhaps a saving grace – management expects losses to be at their worst in the first quarter of 2022 but to improve from Q2 onwards.
In the likely event that Rakuten deviates from its planned 2023 break-even path, it is vital that the company can nevertheless show a substantial ramp up in subscriber acquisition over the next six months to demonstrate that its aggressive loss-leading pricing strategy can work in Japan. Otherwise, there is a danger that investors will start to lose confidence in the company, which may also extend to telco customers at its Symphony business.
Against a backdrop of falling pay TV and MVNO subscribers, Dish faces challenges in both its established and new businesses. At its 3Q earnings call, the company reported 10,98 million pay TV subscribers, down 13,000 YoY and 8.77 million mobile subscribers, down 121,000 YoY. Up until now, Dish has been able to blunt the impact of its pay TV subscriber losses with higher prices. However, pricing power cannot last forever.
Dish claims that it will be able to build a fourth nationwide 5G network for $10 billion and plans to launch in its first market – Las Vegas – in early 2022. With regulatory deadlines to provide 70% population coverage by the end of 2023, it is now in a race against time to deploy its 5G network and make the business a success. As with Rakuten, network roll-out will be its biggest challenge initially. While using AWS for its core network may yield cost advantages, putting the entire 5G network in the public cloud is a risky bet, as the recent outages at AWS demonstrate.
Unlike Rakuten, Dish plans initially to target the wholesale and enterprise markets rather than focusing exclusively on the consumer market, where it lacks its rivals’ brand recognition. With its considerable spectrum assets, targeting the wholesale market looks like a no brainer. However, with limited network coverage initially, selling to enterprises will not be easy, plus Dish has no experience of working with enterprises. Despite its recent ties with AWS, it will be challenging to generate revenues from the enterprise market.
The Endgame – Big Tech Takeover?
Building a commercially successful network from scratch with new, innovative technologies that promise significant cost benefits is easier said than done. Rakuten’s progress to date has revealed a lot of issues and there are lessons here for other aspiring greenfield networks. While the contract award with 1&1 Drillisch demonstrates that there is demand for its technology, this is a business where scale and mindshare are required to be successful. With continued high cash burn and a high credit risk rating, any disappointment on the subscriber front over the next six months could hit investor sentiment as well as impact its ability to expand its Symphony business.
Like Rakuten in Japan, Dish is smaller than its main rivals and may also struggle financially, particularly as it will need to offer substantial discounts to attract customers. Counterpoint Research believes that an eventual takeover by a big tech company such as AWS, Google, Microsoft or even Apple looks the most likely outcome for Dish, while over in Japan, open RAN ambitions by domestic vendors, coupled with national pride, will probably ensure that Rakuten Mobile will survive in some form or other.
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