Rakuten Mobile, the fourth mobile operator in Japan, delayed its nationwide launch planned for next month, instead preparing a trial service for a limited number of subscribers from 1 October.

In a statement, the company said to ensure the stability and quality of its service and improve the network based on customer feedback, it will initially open applications to 5,000 subscribers for free through a programme running until 31 March 2020.

It said the service will be expanded in waves to connect tens of thousands of users to the network.

It is taking on incumbents NTT Docomo, KDDI and SoftBank.

Local media reported in mid-August the Japanese newcomer was forced to scale back its ambitious plans due to delays in deploying base stations in some cities. A company representative said a shortage of construction workers stemming from high demand from the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympic Games in 2020, slowed the installation of base stations.

LTE coverage will be available in 23 wards of Tokyo, Nagoya City, Osaka City and parts of Hyogo prefecture.

The operator said it is working to expand the service area of its network. While KDDI and Okinawa Cellular will provide roaming services until the end of March 2026, Rakuten will switch service to its own network as it is completed.

Rakuten, which was cleared to become Japan’s fourth mobile operator in April 2018, has a deal with KDDI allowing it to roam on its MVNO partner’s 4G network in return for helping it launch a payment service.

As an internet player, the company is using its IT experience to differentiate itself by taking a completely cloud-native approach to its own new network, with plans to virtualise the radio network.