A vision for Google Wireless and the troubles it would face
This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
Yesterday, we heard rumors that Google is attempting to build its own wireless carrier. Apparently, Google has been in talks with Dish Network as well as other companies to try to find a partner in building a mobile carrier. The first reaction from many is that this would be a great idea, but there are some trouble spots that Google will have to watch out for if it does try to create the so-called G-Mobile wireless carrier.
First of all, we might not be able to see the awesome G-Mobile name on stores around the world. At least, we won't be able to see it until Google buys the name rights from the Mongolian wireless carrier that already has that name, so for now, we'll refer to it as Google Wireless. But, that's a minor point. The real roadblock to Google creating its own carrier is the same one all big companies come across:
Anti-trust and Monopoly Laws
There is a reason why Verizon, AT&T and the others don't make their own handsets or mobile operating systems, because a company that controls the whole line from top to bottom would be at risk of violating monopoly laws. Monopoly law has become a bit more lax these days, and vertical monopolies have simply been rebranded as "vertical integration". But, Google is already in the spotlight over its globally popular search product, and owning a mobile carrier, a mobile handset manufacturer, and a mobile OS might be reaching too far for one company. It has been mentioned many times that Google could just outright purchase T-Mobile, but this would bring government scrutiny. This is likely why Google wants a partnership, both to offset cost and liability, but it's still a tricky situation for a company that's already on the government's radar.
More competition, lower cost
Still, if Google can skirt the legality of it all, having another competitor to Verizon and AT&T would certainly be a good thing. If you live in a metropolitan area, you likely have choice of wireless providers, and can save money by finding the right one. But, many people in rural America don't have that choice. At best, rural areas can choose between AT&T and Verizon alone, but some areas only have access to one or the other. Google would not only add competition, but Google could drive down costs more than many others, because of the way Google does business.
Google has always been the company to come in and offer a product for free when possible, and far cheaper thanthe competition any time free isn't an option. We've seen it with Gmail making e-mail storage free, and online storage much cheaper. We've seen it with Google Maps making navigation data free. We've seen it with Android as a free operating system. And, even in hardware, we've seen Google selling devices like the Nexus 7 and Nexus 4 basically at cost, instead of with the huge markup that is normally added.
As we've said, Google isn't a product or services company when it comes to the bottom line. In that regard, Google is an advertising company. Google has begun to pull in revenue from the Google Play Store, and Motorola, but neither is really profitable as yet. If anything, Motorola could very well be losing money, and the Play Store might be about breaking even. But, that doesn't matter because of the huge profits generated from Google's advertising platforms.
In the wireless carrier space, this could mean that Google could offer cheaper service plans to go along with its already cheaper hardware. There have been rumors that Google would even offer free data for those that use Google services, but that doesn't really make sense as it seems to go against Net Neutrality rules, and Google has always been one of the biggest proponents of Net Neutrality.
What would Google Wireless look like?
Sure, we all know that Google could offer cheaper service and cheaper hardware, but that only goes so far if the selection isn't there. It's all well and good to speculate about an Android-only, Nexus-only, or Nexus/Motorola-only wireless carrier from Google, but there is almost no chance that is what Google would actually offer. Remember, in order to keep in line with lawmakers, Google wouldn't be able to both undercut the competition, and only offer its own products. Instead, what we'd likely see is the vision for mobile that Google has been working towards since the Nexus One.
We would expect that Google Wireless would be a carrier that breaks the current contract/subsidy model. Customers may have to pay a bit more up front for the hardware, but the service plans would be off-contract, and much cheaper than the competition. The phones would all be unlocked, and customers would be free to bring their existing phones, including BlackBerry and iPhones. The real question would be if Google would directly sell thesedevices through the carrier. We would expect to see some BlackBerry devices, but Apple's subsidy demands may keep the iPhone out of the Google Stores. And, there would no doubt be Android devices. Not just Nexus or Motorola, but all Android devices from all manufacturers (because if nothing else, Google doesn't want to be seen as playing favorites with Android. We've seen that plenty with the forgettable Motorola moves). That's what we'd expect to see sold directly from Google Wirless, but any phone would be usable, as long as it were compatible with Google's wireless bands.
As for the wireless bands, Google prefers global standards, so we would expect that the network would be built on GSM/HSPA+ and LTE. LTE of course would be the trouble spot as different regions use different frequency bands. The USA uses the 700MHz spectrum, while the majority of the rest of the world uses the 1800MHz, 2100MHz, and 2600MHz spectrum, and a few others. Even worse, within those frequencies, there are different bands being used by different carriers. For example, Verizon and AT&T both use the 700MHz frequency, but Verizon is band 13 and AT&T is band 17, so the same radio wouldn't work for both.
The service plans would be cheaper, but also Google is a proponent of openness, so we'd expect the service plans to be laid out somewhat like Ting Mobile, where you know exactly what it will cost, and there will be no overage charges. Part of this could very well be with a big push to make the entire carrier data-driven, meaning no traditional minute or texting limits, because it is all VoIP, and all done over a data connection. Google has been slowly building up the VoIP options in Android which would work with this idea, and then of course there is always Google Voice for texting services.
The killer feature that we'd love to see, but would be hardest to pull off would be for Google to break the model of international calling, and international roaming. It seems reasonable to expect that Google Voice would be a big part of this endeavor, and if all customers were automatically signed up for Google Voice, that would mean international calling rates that are miles and miles cheaper than the competition. International roaming is a much more difficult thing to offer though, so we're not sure that could change much.
Google isn't the first to come up with the idea to run its own wireless network. Steve Jobs had wanted the same thing for Apple back when the iPhone first launched. Jobs planned a mobile network built on WiFi, but couldn't get the project off the ground. Google doesn't have the need for control that Jobs did, so the possibilities are greater that Google could actually pull this off.
There are definitely a lot of ways in which the wireless carrier model can be broken and rebuilt, and Google is definitely a company that could do a lot of that work. It's a great dream to imagine a wireless carrier with inexpensive hardware and services, that offers unlocked worldphones, and does away with traditional carrier greed points like per minute calling, international calling, roaming, and texting fees. We would love nothing more than to see a carrier, Google or not, that offers everything over a data connection, and makes the whole experience more efficient. In a perfect world, Google Wireless would act more like a wired ISP than a mobile carrier: you pay for the data pipe, and then do with it what you like - voice, sharing, etc.
Unfortunately, even if Google does find itself a partner in this project, there is a lot of work to do before there will be a real wireless carrier born from it. Google would have to make its way through the tricky legal field of being a mobile hardware manufacturer, and mobile software developer that plans to also own its own mobile wireless carrier. And, on top of that, there is the cost of building the network itself. So, even if Google finds a partner, and plans all of the things we dream about for a wireless carrier, we still may not actually see the company launch for a couple years.