The Japanese government granted Rakuten Mobile preliminary, experimental licenses to conduct mobile communication tests in Japan, using AST SpaceMobile’s low earth orbit (LEO) satellite BlueWalker 3.

Rakuten Mobile is an investor in AST SpaceMobile as well as a partner. Rakuten hopes to one day use AST’s satellite technology to bring cellular coverage to remote areas of Japan that aren’t economical to build terrestrial wireless infrastructure. Rakuten also wants the satellite network to add resilience to its mobile network in times of disaster.

AST SpaceMobile’s goal is to launch a constellation of 168 satellites that would be the basis for space-based cellular broadband networks. And people would be able to use their regular mobile phones to seamlessly transition from terrestrial networks to the space-based network.

AST SpaceMobile just announced this week that it had successfully unfolded, while in orbit, the communications array for its test satellite, BlueWalker 3. And now, Rakuten is wasting no time to conduct tests with the satellite.

Rakuten Mobile is now preparing a gateway earth station (equivalent to a mobile base station) in Fukushima Prefecture to test and verify direct communication between BlueWalker 3 and mobile devices in mountainous areas in Hokkaido.

Rakuten Symphony will assist with the testing. Rakuten Symphony is the company that is taking all the learnings from Rakuten Mobile’s construction of a greenfield 5G network and selling those technologies to other mobile operators around the globe.

For the tests with AST SpaceMobile, Rakuten Symphony will provide a variety of software from its Symworld portfolio, including its virtualized Radio Access Network software and OSS/BSS software.

Speaking with Rakuten Mobile and Rakuten Symphony CEO Tareq Amin at Mobile World Congress Americas in September, Amin said the upcoming tests are “a really big hurdle.”

Although Rakuten didn’t specify in its announcement today when the tests would occur, Amin said in September that he was optimistic it would “test in 30 days” once the necessary testing approvals were received. A spokesman for Rakuten Mobile today said, “Testing will occur in the next several months, but we can’t be more specific at this time.”

Rakuten is optimistic about AST SpaceMobile’s technology because it would save the company a lot of capex if it doesn’t have to build terrestrial wireless network infrastructure in difficult terrain. “If we are able to defer our investment for building out the rural area, this is a lot of billions of savings,” said Amin.

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