By now, you may have already read last week's news, broken by The Information
(paywall -- but covered widely by lots of other sources
), that Google plans to launch a mobile cellular service in the US late this year -- as an MVNO (Mobile Virtual Network Operator -- basically offering a cellular service, but using someone else's physical network).
This is huge news, and it is correctly observed that this is likely to shake up the industry. The Google virtual network, rumored to be called Nova, will run on top of not one, but two infrastructure-based network operators: T-Mobile and Sprint. By combining the two, Nova can have wider geographic reach, higher average data speeds, and higher average signal strength. It may also be possible to bond the two carriers together to get much faster speeds. Nova could also benefit from lowest-cost routing, running on whichever network's costs are lowest in real time.
Analysts have suggested that the threat of Nova will strike fear into the hearts of Verizon Wireless and AT&T, and perhaps it does. Sprint and T-Mobile, whether combined by a merger, or virtually by Nova, are still a far more formidable competitor than each alone. And Google is known for offering services for free (or very cheap compared to industry norms). I wouldn't expect to see any kind of free cellular service here. At best, Google will offer the service above cost, which I'd estimate could start as low as $15 per month. And that's the crux of most of the news coverage: "Google to attack market with low price."
But most of the analysis thus far has left a lot of forward-looking ideas on the table. I'm betting that Google has much more in mind than a relatively low-price cellular service that can ride on the best signal of two networks. Here are some ideas Google should look to push out, and if they do, it will reveal how this MVNO is a huge
strategic play for Google:
- Nova will not be a virtual network that aggregates two disparate networks. It will aggregate three. The increasing spread of WiFi hotspots and their IP-based connections are a no-brainer. And if Google seeks to keep prices low, it can offload as much data as possible onto users' home and work WiFi networks. Expect the Nova virtualization layer to incorporate IP connections from Sprint, T-Mobile, and WiFi.
- That said, it makes sense for Google to jump into telecoms now, when an IP-only network is finally feasible. LTE provides the low-latency data connections required for VoIP. I expect Nova to be either all-VoIP, or at least mostly so. This lowers the operational expenses versus a conventional cellular service, which has to manage classic circuit-switched voice networks and an IP data network in parallel.
- To further drive down the costs of the network, and increase the amount of WiFi offload, I wouldn't be surprised if Google either partnered with, or copied a company like Devicescape*. Devicescape is a firm that has aggregated millions of public hotspots into a "Curated Virtual Network" (CVN). This firm, or similar competitors, has already developed and demonstrated the technology to virtualize millions of diverse WiFi into one virtual layer. Google will probably follow on the heels of Republic Wireless, which uses the CVN and keeps costs down by being a "WiFi-first" cellular MVNO on Sprint's infrastructure.
- It's rumored that over at Sprint, which is now owned by Japan's Softbank, the driving force for this deal was Masayoshi Son. Son isn't known for modest market disruption. He goes big. He spent $21.6 billion to acquire a controlling interest in Sprint, and one of the key assets of the deal isn't Sprint's current standing in the US cellular market -- it is Sprint's tremendous (yet fallow) spectrum holdings at 2.5GHz. Now, with all that money spent, a question looms: What deep pocketed partner could be entreated to help invest the capital required to develop LTE-A networks on that spectrum? Google certainly comes to mind. At the very least, a popular Google MVNO would bring demand for data that would help Son develop and utilize his US spectrum assets.
That covers the network upheaval, so now onto phones and devices.
- Google's Nexus phones have always been a success at pushing along the other phone makers and carriers, but less of a success in terms of sales volume. But the Nova network could change the outlook for Nexus sales. As it stands, the Nexus 6 is among the few phones that already has the right radios for both Sprint and T-Mobile's different networks and frequencies. The mere existence of Nexus line proves that Google can get phones made to meet its precise needs (a huge feat, for anyone who knows this industry). But, up to now, Nexus phone functionality has been both driven by Google and also limited by mobile carriers. No sense building in features that carriers or their networks won't support, right? And that's Nexus, the most un-encumbered phone model available. Every other handset OEM out there gets pushed around even more by the powerful carriers, since carriers are the bulk buyers of the devices. So far, Apple is the biggest exception. Apple has fought and won more vertical market power than any handset vendor ever. Apple can drive many features to market, but even so is still limited by carriers: Remember tethering, or FaceTime being blocked? But what if Google were the carrier for its own Nexus phone? There would be nothing between the services it conceives and the customer. So, Google will sell more Nexus phones, and the phones will enhance the Nova network's functionality. And all with low capital invested or risked, since Google owns neither phone factories nor network towers.
- And in fact, the Nova network is just the "Nexus One of cellular networks." Let's not forget the Nexus One phone success strategy: Either Nexus succeeds and sells high volume, or it fails, but still pushes other stakeholders along towards Google's market objectives. You can substitute the word "Nexus" in that sentence with either of: "Google Fiber," "700MHz FCC Auctions," "Android," or "Nova" for that matter. It's a great strategic play for Google: Heads we win...tails we win. But there is thin ice here with respect to Fair Trade -- it's not fair for Google to deliberately fail in the cellular market, or lose money just to bring down its competitors (the economics term is "dumping"). But, in this case, Google can easily try to make Nova a money-earner, and/or a strategic win. And the WSJ has reported that Google is not strictly pursuing a low-price service.
So, the phone hardware issue is also disruptive. What about services, features, and functionality? Now comes the icing on the cake:
- An unconstrained Google phone on its own network, running all-IP would unleash many of the company's disparate services that have somewhat languished as orphans for years. Google Voice could be the entire voice component of the Nova network, featuring cheap worldwide VoIP, visual voicemail, and voice messaging a.k.a push-to-talk. Hangouts would be the default chat and SMS app.
- Where else does Google have ambition, and could the phone fit in there? The Android Auto efforts, perhaps? Connected home via its assets Dropcam and Nest? Why not. A Nova Nexus could easily be a hub inside a connected car, leveraging the car's display with Android Auto. Throw out voice commands using your car's microphone telling your garage door to open and to turn off your home alarm. The Internet of Things? Sure, Google can be more creative, and offer very interesting pricing models in IoT, if it operates its own MVNO.
- Now, to push some boundaries, what about total communications convergence? Think "smartphone in the cloud". Google could take Chrome on the desktop, Google Apps on iOS devices, and Android tablets and reproduce the full range of communications services from the phone. Sitting at your desk, but forgot your phone at home? MMS, SMS, and other chat services would just pop up on your PC. You could make voice calls using the same number from anywhere - one cellular account, but on any device. Need to make changes on your mobile phone? Do it remotely from your PC. And it's not just computers that could access the phone's features: your TV, your car, or your Microsoft Hololens could each be virtual iterations of your phone. Suddenly, your "communications self" is liberated from this 5" brick to which we've become so attached. Your "self" follows you, not your phone. Google has been working on many of these ideas for years. You can use Google Voice, and Google Hangouts on a smartphone and a PC, but it adds complexity for users because the phone still has another voice service, another SMS app, and phone number as its identity. That phone identity historically has been locked within a carrier's garden walls. But with Nova + Android + Nexus, Google can remove the entire construct of walls.
Can Google promote, market, and sell a device? Well, the company has learned a lot since the first Nexus One. The Play store is now much more polished, and it successfully sells devices every day. Google can easily promote its network and phones in its search results, or in millions of other ad inventory spaces that it manages. Support was a noted weakness of the first Nexus One, but even that has come a long way. Google now has a few years of experience in customer support through projects like Google Fiber. So, while support is unlikely to be a specific strength for Google, the bar isn't really set that high
, is it?
Now, none of this is a slam dunk. Analyst Phil Goldstein wrote over at FierceWireless
that there are 5 reasons why Google's MVNO will fail. And while I disagree with five of his five points, it is true that there are numerous hurdles to overcome. Goldsteins five points, in aggregate, represent true barriers. And we've seen lots of big profile MVNOs fail. In fact, on the US docket, the more ambitious the MVNO, the lower the track record of success. The failures have stemmed from high handset cost (ESPN), an app posing as a carrier (Amp'd), no clear target market (Disney), high marketing and Subscriber Acquisition Costs (Helio). To counter, I would argue that Google has the ability to produce hardware at the right price points, has a very wide audience of Android and Google users, and has good access to their markets using existing web properties. And it's not all doom and gloom, lesser MVNOs have frequently found measured success: Simple Mobile, Republic Wireless, TracFone, Virgin Mobile, etc. And none of those had the structural advantages, or deep pockets that Google has.
In short, there is a lot more below the surface of a Google MVNO. You can bet that the ambitious people steering this thing are not simply thinking of "a new network using T-Mobile and Sprint, but slightly cheaper."
*Disclosure: In the past, I have been a consultant for Devicescape. I haven't had a professional or financial connection to the firm in over a year.