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Why might Google want to go wireless?

google building 42

via Flickr © Robert Scoble (CC BY 2.0)

As rumours go this one now seems pretty convincing. Google appears likely to be embarking on its long-awaited mobile MVNO (mobile virtual network operator) play, first in the US (although it may well be incubating arrangements in other countries too) and apparently through a dual-sourcing arrangement involving both Sprint and T-Mobile.

Are we sure?

No we’re not? This one is like the Apple iPhone phablet story. Year after year there’s a  mountain of industrial and strategic logic to suggest a move is about to be made; year after year the move doesn’t happen until (as with Apple’s iPhone 6), it does. Is Google really going to do it?

Maybe. This time the sources feel right and so far there have been no denials. All three possible partners (Google, Sprint and T-Mobile) refuse to comment which may indicate  that an announcement by them all is imminent.

The apparent plans were leaked first to The Information which says that “Google is preparing to sell mobile phone plans directly to customers and manage their calls and mobile data over a cellular network, according to three people with knowledge of the plans.

“The new service is expected run on Sprint and T-Mobile’s networks; it’s codenamed “Nova,” and is led by longtime Google executive Nick Fox. A launch this year seems likely. Mr. Fox had previously looked at starting the service last fall, and some employees have already tested it.”

Other media sources, including The Wall Street Journal, have sought and received non-attributable confirmation that the MVNO story is right and the WSJ may have  extracted a crucial point: that Sprint at least agreed the deal because it contained a clause actually limiting Google’s customer base.

So what’s changed? First, why would Sprint and T-Mobile agree to expose their customer base to such a dangerous competitive brand as Google?  Yes, MVNOs have proved, in the main, not to be as strong price competitors as was once feared. On the contrary, some of the most ambitious MVNOs have failed and the ones that have succeeded globally tend to occupy niches of various kinds where they can scrape out revenue the MNO might not have won on its own and is happy to get the wholesale revenue stream to prevent a rival network operator from winning the business instead.

But not always. The world’s MNOs need only look to France to see how a popular brand (in that case fixed broadband-oriented Free) can cause total market disruption with the right terms, conditions and price at the right time. In that case the disruptor was ably assisted by the incumbent, France Telecom, which entered into a network-sharing arrangement as Free built out its own network… so not strictly an MVNO but certainly Free was a price-play using wholesale capacity.

It may be that Google has managed to convince both Sprint and T-Mobile that the US market dynamic will see Google Mobile (or whatever it’s called) convert many more subscribers from AT&T and Verizon than from themselves and given the market shares in the US this must be objectively true anyway.  Remember too that Sprint and T-Mobile were fairly recently attempting a merger which was thwarted. Reports this week reveal that T-Mobile is still keen to have a merger take place in the long run (perhaps when a Republican president is in the White House).

What amounts to a joint MVNO with Google (should it take place) is almost a network sharing deal in its own right and might help the two networks load up extra customers (albeit at one remove) as what most agree is likely to be a price war with Verizon and AT&T shapes up over the next year or two

In support of this idea, there is evidence that the services that Google wants to deploy will be app based (presumably on Android), so the handset could effectively make a network selection based on which of the two carriers is available and which is the least loaded, thus making the capacity and availability story stronger from a customer point of view. For Google Mobile users, that’s a virtual merger.

But what about the rampant ‘free-like’ disruption Google might bring to the market and the undermining of the two brands - Sprint and T-Mobile - it might engineer? Sprint’s brand is battered anyway, but T-Mobile’s ‘uncarrier’ schtick seems to have boosted it . Much might therefore swing on that ‘customer-limiting clause’.

Having hard numbers over which Google would not be allowed to stray sounds unlikely, though not impossible. More likely to my mind is that the shape of the Google proposition might limit it to certain demographics or use-cases… one of which might be to provide the mobile element in a potential multiplay that Google could launch in its Google Fibre cities as these increase.

As with Orange and T-Mobile in the UK where an effective merger started with a network share, an MVNO deal between Google, Sprint and T-Mobile might be seen by all three parties in the US as a step towards a merger, mitigated from a regulatory point of view (as has been the case in Europe) by the establishment of MVNO’s which can be seen to replace some of the competition lost by the infrastructure merger.

One more ‘why now’? Why not two years ago? is the network technology story.  Google is an SDN/NFV enthusiast and has seen the ETSI NFV industry group marshall the telecoms vendors behind network automation and ITisation. Much has recently been made of the fact that huge capital and operational savings are not expected to accrue for incumbent telcos who adopt the technologies - rather it will give them scope for agile service provision. Instead of exponential cost decreases, one consultant, Tom Nolle of CIMI Corporation, expects the savings to be more in the region of 25 per cent -  good but not mind-blowing.

But the same does not hold true for green field service providers. Incumbents don’t start from scratch and are expected to spend a lot on things like training, integration and the like to get the new software interworking effectively with the old black boxes. Such incumbent disadvantages just don’t apply to Google, armed with shiny (and cost effective) new servers housed in shiny newish data centres, driven by software and already deploying both SDN and NFV in its network. This means that Google should be able to scale services ‘gracefully’ in the new (to it) telecom services domain and offer new and innovative communications services (voice, messaging, video and so on), confident in the knowledge that incremental costs savings will flow.

But why do all this at all from Google’s point of view? Boring answer: It’s another position in a potential IT gatekeeper point that Google reckons it can mitigate by showing existing players the way, That’s probably true for mobile as it clearly is for fibre deployment.

Very strategically, Google knows it can only expand its own revenues by expanding the entire market and this it apparently plans to do by helping to open the various data gates still partially or fully shut. In doing so it might advantage its rivals (Apple, Amazon and so on) as much as it advantages itself, but it will be worth it  if it helps engagement to rise and online commerce of all types to increase.

For Google is now at a Microsoft danger point. A market share increase of any sort may see it  lose its antitrust actions on either side of the Atlantic and beyond. It must therefore make the whole market grow and itself with it if it’s to not to be seen to have a monopoly position (which some already argue it has) requiring remedy. Years ago in Apple’s darkest hour it was Microsoft that stepped up and saved it with an investment. Google may be (sort of) doing the same thing.

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