Telecommunications, Automotive and Market Research

More than 15 years in the mobile telecommunications industry and an industry analyst since 1998.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Google Voice a Threat to Mobile Operators. We Mean it This Time.

How many times have we heard this? “A new technology that is starting to gain acceptance signals the death knell of the incumbent telecommunication operators.” Let’s see. What was that technology again?

And on and on and on. Now, in the article CNN Money by David Goldman, Google: Your Next Phone Carrier  breathlessly predicts Google will become a mobile operator by using its voice over IP application. Based on what evidence? The article cites the fact that Google might be buying dark fiber, might become an ISP and once bid on some wireless spectrum. But the key information is here:
“Google already allows people to bypass their mobile carrier's service. Google Voice lets customers send free text messages, and the new version of Android ("Gingerbread") supports VoIP Internet calling, allowing users to make calls over over Wi-Fi networks.”
Wow! It’s wireless Skype all over again, which has had exactly zero effect on the mobile operators. And hasn’t really cut the legs out from under the wireline companies, either.  And, really, all this talk ignores some of the most important facts out there: 
  • Wi-Fi isn’t a wide area network. Isn’t now. Won't ever be. Tried a couple of times and crashed (remember municipal wi-fi networks?”). Even Google’s own experiments in San Francisco have tanked.
  • If you’re going to have mobile access, you will have to use a mobile network. 4G doesn’t yet have enough footprint and will end up being controlled by the mobile operators anyway. 
  • It’s not easy to build a mobile network. The vaunted Verizon Wireless has achieved its current network coverage after more than 20 years of buildout. AT&T has also had 20 years and Sprint 15. People are still complaining about coverage.
A couple of scenarios:
“I’m going to replace my AT&T/Verizon Wireless/Sprint/T-Mobile with the Google network.” Assuming a deployment twice as fast as those companies were able to accomplish, it would be 2021 before there would be similar coverage. And, as rich as Google is, it still doesn’t have the financial resources of the telcos. Come back in 10 years. Oh, wait. It’ll be at least two years before they can complete the paperwork with the FCC and obtain nationwide spectrum. And all those communities who are already sick of putting up cell towers? They don’t want more. 
“Google Voice will replace the mobile operators because the price is zero.” OK, where are you going to get mobile access? From a mobile operator who is charging you a for a voice plan whether or not you use it. Or you could go with a data-only plan using a 3G/4G dongle for your laptop. Great: 1) you’re still tethered to a laptop, which is tough to use at the bar when you want your buddies to come down and 2) you’re still using AT&T/Verizon Wireless/Sprint/T-Mobile and paying $60 a month… about the same as a basic voice plan.
“I’ll use Google Voice on Wi-Fi.” Great idea. But where? Home, Starbucks, McDonalds, home, someone else’s home and… where else? Wi-Fi’s not a mobile network (something I’ve been saying since 2003). Terrible coverage. Not useful where you want to make calls.
What it really means: Nothing. Is Google going to become a serious mobile operator using its Android phones, some spectrum somewhere or Wi-Fi? Probably not. Skype didn’t. Vonage didn’t. Once again, Nethead domination of the telecommunication space will remain a fantasy. Bellheads, ultimately will be responsible for paying for, building, and maintaining very complex, very expensive networks. And consumers will keep paying – and paying a lot – for access to those networks.


  1. What about using wholesale 4G Network wholesaler LightSquared to quickly become a wireless service provider? Companies like Apple and Google would be well prositioned owning device and service delivery.

  2. I think a network wholesaler could become an excellent channel for a number of companies to enter the mobile access space. However, I would also look at the string of disappointments (Clearwire) and outright failures (NextWave) in the wholesale access market.

    In addition, there is always the issue of the incumbent telcos/cellcos doing a superb job of protecting themselves from competition, often through the use of legislation or FCC rulemaking.