Rakuten Mobile and Google Pixel 3 / Pixel 3a

In mid-2019 the time came to change my mobile phone contract. For some reason mobile phone carriers in Japan do not want to reward your loyalty if you stick with them beyond the initial contract period and instead stiff you through higher prices or reduced discounts once the contract renews after 24 or 25 months. To me that’s just stupid, but anyway that’s how I had ended up with a Softbank Mobile contract and a new Google Pixel 3a after two years with UQ Mobile.

Now Rakuten Mobile had entered the ring to challenge the big three operators (docomo, au and Softbank), offering their “Rakuten UN-LIMIT V” which is free for 12 months for the first 3 million customers and has no penalty for cancelling after that. On paper it’s an offer with which you can’t loose. Rakuten’s network is still being built up from scratch, but the company has a roaming deal with au to give sufficient coverage until then. The plan includes 5 GB of data per month in the roaming area as well as 2 GB per month in 66 countries abroad (most of the destinations for international business travelers). I was willing to give it a try, even though they did not explicitly guarantee an unlocked Google Pixel 3a would work with their network. But we’re talking about Google, right? This is a trillion dollar company making some of the best phones outside of Apple and responsible for the operating system running on 3 out of 4 smartphones worldwide.

So I took the leap of faith and applied for MNP (mobile number portability) from my old carrier. Then I applied for “Rakuten UN-LIMIT V”. A few days later an envelope arrived from Rakuten Mobile with a new SIM card. When I activated the new SIM, the old Softbank SIM was disabled and the phone lost network access. I followed the printed instructions for swapping the SIM card but no joy: The new SIM card didn’t start working. Even after I manually selected the new APN (it wasn’t activated by default), the phone did not receive a phone number and there was no mobile data access, only WiFi. I googled the problem and found some blog posts with work-arounds that only work on Rakuten’s own network, not the roaming areas. Even so, I couldn’t make it work. My Pixel 3a didn’t even see any Rakuten network in the area where I live, densely populated Setagaya in Tokyo. I even tried the Rakuten SIM in my other phone, a Pixel 3 purchased off Amazon in the US. Same problem, no data. I called support and they told me what I already knew, that the Google Pixel 3 and Google Pixel 3a are not on their supported list. The list of supported devices for the Rakuten UN-LIMIT V service mentions the Google Pixel 4, Pixel 4 XL and Pixel 4a but no Pixel 3 or 3a. For Rakuten with Docomo lines or au lines they list the Docomo Pixel 3a as the only compatible device from Google.

Rakuten Mobile support told me I could either buy a different phone or transfer the number to another provider or give up the number altogether.

So I requested an MNP number from Rakuten Mobile (3000 yen + tax) to move on and applied for a voice + data SIM from a Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO). Three days later I had that SIM in my mailbox. I plugged it in, followed the phone-based activation procedure and 10 minutes later had a working phone again, with voice, SMS and 3 GB of data for 1600 yen a month + tax.

I really hope Rakuten will get its act together. The Japanese oligopoly of docomo, au and Softbank with difficult to understand but ultimately overpriced plans needs some real competition. But if they are serious, how can they not support Google’s flagship phones? Rakuten blew a one time chance to gain a loyal customer. Meanwhile I’m happy with IIJmio, the service I signed up for.

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