Google Ponders Wi-Fi-First Mobile

A rumor that Google is pondering whether to become a mobile operator would be but the latest indication that Google and other application providers remain unconvinced legacy access can be relied upon to operate in ways that are optimal for application provider business models.

Such musing by Google would parallel similar thinking about the quality of fixed network high speed access that eventually lead to the launch of Google Fiber.

Google also has in the past invested in municipal Wi-Fi, airport Wi-Fi, commercial Wi-Fi at Starbucks locations and even invested in Clearwire. Google also is testing unconventional says of supplying Internet access to billions of people living in the global South, using steerable balloons.

It is easy enough to speculate that Google could create a mobile virtual network operator business. 

That would allow the fastest market entry, with nearly national coverage. But such a move also would mean Google is bound by the network features and capabilities, as well as cost structure, of the wholesale agreement.

Wi-Fi is the other obvious network platform, with a different set of advantages and drawbacks. Incomplete coverage and ability to support fully mobile communications are among the chief drawbacks.

So a "Wi-Fi first" hybrid model would make more sense, something other MVNOs also prefer.

Using Wi-Fi alone would be simpler if Google were interested mostly in a content-access service that did not require mobility as a primary attribute, but only defined “place-based” access. That’s the definition of the Starbucks Wi-Fi effort.

Also, if Google were interested in vertical market apps, perhaps enterprise focused, Wi-Fi-only approaches might also be a more-reasonable solution. That might be appropriate for some “Internet of Things” or machine-to-machine apps.

To the extent that Google primarily would be interested in a mobile consumer service, the issue is whether enough advantage can be gained using a Wi-Fi-only approach, compared to a Wi-Fi-first model.

Wi-Fi already supports a mix of end user at-home, at-work and public venue access, without a primary requirement for on-the-move roaming between cells, and Google does not need to supply the at-home, at-work access and most of the public hotspot access.

On the other hand, neither does that provide the "data" that operating as a primary access provider would deliver.

At this point, the only easy way to provide constant application connectivity--and gain the data--is to use a big national mobile network, even when defaulting to Wi-Fi when possible. And that is likely to remain the case for some time.

So the issue is how much room Google might have, in an MVNO context, to create retail offers that serve its needs and also are distinctive and valuable enough from a consumer perspective to underpin a large business, even if using a Wi-Fi-first model.

At least initially, Google is said to be looking at a “Wi-Fi first” model in areas where Google Fiber operates, with default to the mobile network only when users are outside Wi-Fi zones.

Just how extensible that approach might be is the issue. Though it undoubtedly will be easier in the future, coverage is an issue at the moment.
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