Google Announces Plans for Hybrid Wireless Service

Google plans to enter the US wireless market with a hybrid “Wi-Fi first” service that will seamlessly bridge Wi-Fi and cellular data connections, and provide voice, text and data capabilities across both. As with the firm’s fiber optic efforts, this “experiment” will start at a small scale and not immediately threaten the four big wireless carriers, Google says.

“I think we’re at the stage where we need to think of hardware, software, and connectivity together,” Google senior vice president Sundar Pichai said this week during an appearance at Mobile World Congress. “We want to break down the barriers on how connectivity works.”

Pichai didn’t offer many details about the planned network, which had been rumored for months, noting that Google would reveal more “the coming months.” The firm’s developer conference, Google I/O, happens in May and is the most likely venue for this information.

Sensitive to the concerns of the major wireless carriers, he said that Google would like to see AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint and Verizon Wireless adopt whatever hybrid networking functionality they create so that customers everywhere can benefit. “Our goal here is to drive a set of innovations which we think the system should adopt,” he added.

And while Pichai didn’t say so, it’s likely that Google will lease capacity from at least two of the big carriers. Indeed, Google has reportedly signed deals with Sprint and T-Mobile.

There’s a precedent for this coming hybrid network, too: Google launched an effort it also labeled “an experiment” called Google Fiber five years ago, seeking to bring super-high-speed wired networking to the masses. Currently, three metropolitan areas—Kansas City, Austin, and Provo—are served by Google Fiber and four more—Atlanta, Charlotte, Raleigh, Durham, and Nashville—are coming online this year. The service provides 1 Gbps (1000 Mbps) networking capacity (both up and down), far exceeding the more typical 20-50 Mbps speeds available through the big providers.

The hope is that Google’s new service—or at least the hybrid networking capabilities created for the service—will trigger a renaissance in wireless Internet connectivity and that it will have far broader impact than Google Fiber. At the very least, Google hopes to solve both the “last mile” problem—where the final connectivity link between your device and the Internet is often the weakest—and issues related to switching between network types.

Marketing aside, the big wireless carriers aren’t actually all that interested in plumbing the depths of what’s possible with wireless networking because doing so will inevitably lead to lower prices. These companies have resisted expanding capabilities for customers with the same zeal that automakers once had for safety features like seatbelts and air bags.

Which is why Google’s not-so-subtle prodding—somewhat ironic given its numerous privacy violations and anticompetitive business practices—is so important and is a positive development. As the maker of the world’s most popular mobile platform, Android, and the most successful online service, Google Search, the technology giant can exert outsized influence on an industry that, quite frankly, would be happy to keep things the way they are. This is a role that companies like Apple or Microsoft simply couldn’t provide.

Meanwhile, Google is separately working to end some of the thornier legal issues that have arisen because of that anti-privacy and anticompetitive behavior.

In Europe this week to meet with the telecommunications companies that have been ratting them out to EU antitrust regulators, Google executives offered a new message that has been warmly received: we should stop fighting and work together. And Google chairman Eric Schmidt met with EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager this week to help bring a search-related antitrust case to a close.

The dialog is timely: US-based technology firms, but in particular Google, are coming under increased scrutiny in EU countries because of protectionist policies and Snowden-based fears of governmental spying. But it’s interesting that companies devoted to communications are only so belatedly arriving at a fairly obvious conclusion: it’s amazing what different parties can accomplish when you actually communicate with each other.