As time goes on, the company may expand the scope of its ambitions as a wireless carrier, much as it had done with its super-high-speed landline internet service, Google Fiber. But the larger point is that Google’s experiments—if you can call them that—will help push the rest of the market in the same direction. The market is already moving this way thanks to other notable tech names, including mobile carrier T-Mobile, mobile chipmaker Qualcomm, and serial Silicon Valley inventor Steve Perlman, who recently unveiled a faster breed of wireless network known as pCell.
At the moment, Google says, it hopes to provide ways for phones to more easily move between cellular networks and WiFi connections, perhaps even juggling calls between the two. Others, such as T-Mobile and Qualcomm, are working on much the same. But with the leverage of its Android mobile operating system and general internet clout, Google can push things even further. Eventually, the company may even drive the market towards new kinds of wireless networks altogether, networks that provide connections when you don’t have cellular or WiFi—or that significantly boost the speed of your cellular connection, as Perlman hopes to do.
Richard Doherty—the director of a technology consulting firm called Envisioneering, who is closely following the evolution of the world’s mobile networks—points out that the carriers still have clout of their own, and that in many cases they will push to keep wireless networking as it is. But he also says the carriers won’t stand by if looks like Google will eclipse their services. “Do they really want all this happening on Google, when they’re not getting a penny?” he asks.
‘In the Coming Months’
On Monday, at the massive Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, Google big-wig Sundar Pichairevealed that the company will transform itself into a wireless carrier in “the coming months,” confirmingearlier reports that it would sell wireless plans directly to smartphone buyers. And true to Google form, Pichai was careful to say that the company isn’t trying to compete with major carriers.
“Carriers in the US are what powers most of our Android phones,” he said, referring to the world of smartphones that run Google’s Android operating systems and all its associated Google apps. “That model works really well for us.”
But he also said—or a least implied—that this model could work better. And that’s why Google will soon offer Google wireless service, likely by leasing capacity from second-tier carriers Sprint and T-Mobile to conduct its so-called experiments. “We are thinking about how WiFi and cell networks work together and how to make that seamless,” he said, according to tech news site Techcrunch. And the company said much the same thing in an email to WIRED.
That word—experiment—is yet another way of painting this as a small effort. But recent history has shown that Google’s ostensibly small experiments in internet access have a way of becoming very big.
Back in 2008, Google bid for a valued piece of wireless spectrum—and lost. As a result, it didn’t become a wireless carrier, as some had expected. But it did push bidding prices high enough to activate government rules that required the eventually winner, Verizon, to open the spectrum to any device. It was the beginning of the (relatively) open mobile internet we know today.
In launching Google Fiber in 2010, Google described that as an experiment, too. But the company has since expanded this super-high-speed internet service into something far bigger, with three cities now on board and four more on the way, all putting at least some pressure on entrenched internet providers—including Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast—to up their games. What’s more, according to The New York Times, Google could use Fiber’s landlines to set up wireless routers that cover various parts of the country with WiFi—WiFi that could dovetail with Google’s new cellular service.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that Google will blanket the country with its own internet services. But the company is experimenting in other ways too, fashioning high-altitude balloons and flying drones that could provide internet connections where traditional methods don’t. And it’s exploring ways of helping phones move between various networks. Taken together, this puts considerable pressure on the country’s big carriers to at least work better with outside networks—and perhaps improve their own networks at a faster pace.
The Bigger Picture
With Steve Perlman’s pCell technology in the mix, analyst Richard Doherty believes, we may also see both Google and the carriers push for networks that operate at much higher speeds.
According to Perlman, pCell provides a cellular signals that’s about 35 times faster than today’s signals. It might provide even higher speeds in the years to come. And it works with today’s phones (all you need is a new SIM card). Yes, it involves installing new antennas across the country, but Perlman and his company, Artemis Research, just struck a deal with Dish Network, the big satellite TV company, to build a pCell service in San Francisco that uses part of the Dish wireless spectrum.
As Doherty says, we could see Google partner with pCell to provide super-high-speed wireless. Or we might see the big carriers partner with pCell as a way of competing with Google. “I expect the carriers would align with Steve before being bypassed by Google or Facebook,” Doherty says. “That’s one of their worst nightmares.”
However this plays out, the world of internet services is evolving. And it’s evolving in myriad ways, ways that will let us mix and match services into bigger and better things. Perlman says that after launching in San Francisco, he and Artemis plan to roll out pCell in Kansas City, solely because it offers Google Fiber. Google’s high-speed landline service, you see, can provide a backbone for his high-speed wireless service. “It’s no accident that Kansas City is where we want to go,” he says.
It’s all part of the same movement—a movement towards a new kind of mobile internet, a mobile internet that extends well beyond the traditional carriers.