|By Esmeralda Swartz||
|April 21, 2014 10:00 AM EDT||
Some people really want Google to be a wireless carrier. The most recent speculative episode was early in April when The Information published an exclusive suggesting that Google might be thinking about an MVNO deal with Verizon or AT&T, based on comments by people who were unnamed (but might have been close to Google).
Now I don't want to be picky, but the notion that Google might want to become a wireless carrier has been talked about by unnamed "experts" in bars for many years, and lots of that speculation has been published with enthusiasm. It is rather evident that becoming a wireless carrier might be something that Google (and Apple or Samsung) could seriously consider. For Google especially the pairing of wireless with fixed broadband access might seem attractive, but it's hardly a novel concept. Note that if any of those companies want to move into the mobile wireless carrier space in a hurry, then an MVNO deal with one of the major U.S. wireless operators is the only way to do it. Google doesn't own the spectrum needed to provide nationwide cellular coverage, so renting another carrier's capacity is the only practical way forward. No new insights there.
And speaking of spectrum: it was in 2007 that people were speculating that Google's intention was to compete as a wireless carrier when Google announced it would bid on the newly available 700MHz bands. Why bid for spectrum unless you want to become a wireless company? People were asking themselves, "Could Google kill the cellphone industry?" Eventually it became clear that Google's objective was not to become a carrier, but to ensure that at least some carriers were required to offer spectrum that would be open to any device. The ploy sort of succeeded. In the January 2008 auctions, Google managed to push the price up and the purchasers were committed to some openness, but not with any enthusiasm. Google didn't have to buy spectrum to make an impact - it just had to say it would bid (a ruse dubbed the "Google Effect" by one team of researchers.) Chunks of this spectrum were still being hawked from carrier to carrier as recently as January 2014 (one careful owner, good condition, lightly used).
When Google decided to go into the device business in 2008 with the launch of its first Android phone, people thought that might be a clue that Google was still aiming to be a carrier. But no, Google actually just wanted to go into the device business. Speculation rose again with the launch of Google's own branded phone, the Nexus One, in January 2010, but again we found that Google's aim was just to disrupt the phone distribution model (in which it didn't succeed) - not to become a wireless carrier.
And let's not forget the excitement around Google's 2011 MVNO experiment in Spain, which was going to lead to Google setting up MVNOs across Europe. It didn't happen right away, but that didn't stop the same rumor emerging when the EU promised (or threatened) in May 2012 to get tough on excessive roaming charges. It was speculated this would create a wireless opportunity not just for Google, but for Apple too.
Google is already one of the dominant players in wireless. In July 2013, Google Play overtook the Apple Store as the leader in number of mobile app downloads. Google's Android OS is now the best-selling mobile device platform in every major world market. Google Voice has hardly started to achieve its potential yet, but in principle it could become a cross-platform, multi-carrier asset when Google decides to give the product some serious attention. And in 2012 when Google acquired Motorola Mobility, it rather quickly sucked all the patents out of it and now plans to sell off the Motorola manufacturing business to Lenovo, suggesting that Google has interests wider than the mundane world of running factories.
Similarly, it's likely that Google has less interest than fans might think in the mundane world of running wireless networks. Carrying the bits safely across the network is an essential and noble trade, but increasingly it's not where the real action is. Being a wireless carrier is geographically constrained, subject to regulation in most countries and relatively labor-intensive. It also requires operational skill sets that Google may not have or wish to acquire. If Google can run the wireless industry by proxy, through deals and partnerships, and by exercising influence through platforms, apps and over-the-top services, that might be more fun than becoming a ‘me too' wireless carrier and picking fights with the incumbents. If Google ever decides to become a wireless carrier it will not be because they feel an urge to become a conventional phone company. It will be because they have dreamed up a disruptive business model that will shake up the market. And that will be news, when it happens.
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