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Rakuten details carrier plan to reposition against Amazon and SoftBank

by Pavel Alpeyev and Yuki Furukawa

Bloomberg

E-commerce giant Rakuten Inc. is offering a glimpse into its ambitious plan to build a cutting-edge wireless network to take on Masayoshi Son’s SoftBank Group Corp., stay in the lead in mobile payments and win back market share from Amazon.com Inc.

The new mobile business, slated for debut next year, will tie together the company’s disparate portfolio of about 80 different services, Chief Operating Officer Kentaro Hyakuno said in an interview. The convenience of using one ID for everything from shopping and booking travel to paying the bills will attract new customers as well as convince its more than 90 million registered users to spend more on the platform, he said.

CEO Hiroshi Mikitani pioneered online shopping in Japan when he started the Rakuten online marketplace more than two decades ago. Since then, the company has lost ground to Amazon and has increasingly relied on financial services such as credit cards and online banking for growth. While Mikitani’s plan to build Japan’s fourth-largest wireless operator will add another business where it doesn’t have a leading market position, the company is betting the venture will serve as a platform for a collection of offerings no other competitor can match.

“The idea is not to try to win with any particular service alone, but rather by combining them together,” Hyakuno said. “It’s OK to be No. 2 if your combined lifetime customer value is higher than that of your competitors.”

Rakuten will focus on three areas in the next two to four years: expanding its mobile-payment business, improving logistics for e-commerce customers and building a wireless carrier, according to Hyakuno. The Tokyo-based company is targeting ¥10 trillion ($90 billion) in lifetime value, or the total amount its customers are estimated to spend minus the cost of acquiring them, compared with ¥4 trillion as of June.

Rakuten’s stock has fallen almost 30 percent since December, when the company announced its plan to spend as much as ¥600 billion over the next decade to become a wireless carrier. Investors saw the amount as unreasonably small given the expenditures at existing carriers, according to Kazunori Ito, an analyst at Morningstar Investment Services in Tokyo. NTT Docomo Inc., the country’s biggest carrier, spent ¥670 billion a year, on average, over the past decade. For SoftBank, the number is about ¥400 billion annually.

Being a latecomer has its advantages, Hyakuno said. Rakuten can save money because it doesn’t need to maintain legacy equipment. It can also benefit from the latest technological advances, such as radio antennae technology that offers better performance with a smaller footprint. The company plans to reveal more details of its wireless network architecture within the next few months, the COO said.

“The goal is very simple — how do we build the most disruptive network not just in Japan but in the world,” Chief Technology Officer Tareq Amin said at an earnings briefing on Aug. 6. “We are making tremendous progress. We are on schedule, on budget.”

Amin joined Rakuten in June, after more than five years at Reliance Jio — an upstart carrier that in 2016 stormed India’s hyper-competitive wireless services market with free calls and data, forcing rivals to merge or exit. Jio has amassed 215 million subscribers since then and has posted a profit for the past three quarters, partly because of the way it books costs for building its network.

“Having Amin, someone with real experience, comment with such confidence was very reassuring,” Morningstar’s Ito said. “Still, the true cost won’t become clear until they launch and you can actually judge the quality of the service.”

Rakuten plans to launch its wireless network in Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya next year and expand coverage to 96 percent of the population by 2026. Rakuten, which has already offered mobile services as a virtual operator using Docomo’s network since 2014, has set a target of 15 million subscribers.

“There is simply no reason not to be a mobile carrier,” Hyakuno said. “As long as smartphones are around, it will be an important platform.”

Investors have remained on the fence. Rakuten’s shares are trading near a five-year low and of the 16 analysts tracking the company, 11 recommend a wait-and-see strategy (holding). The future profitability of mobile carriers was under scrutiny again last week, when Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said they still have room to cut phone bills by about 40 percent. The comments wiped about ¥1 trillion in market value off the three largest mobile providers, and Rakuten’s stock fell 3.6 percent.

“The mobile business could potentially tie the ecosystem together and make it more difficult for users to leave,” Ito said. “But the fourth-largest carrier isn’t likely to make any money.”