Google’s Experiment with Cellular Service

Wi-FiAs I’m writing this (a week ago), Google opened up the ability to sign-up for its Project Fi phone service for a 24-hour period. Until now this has been by invitation only, limited I think by the availability of the Google Nexus phones. But they are launching the new Nexus 5X phone and so they are providing free sign-up for a 24-hour period.

The concept behind the Google phone plan is simple. They sell unlimited voice and text for $20 per month and sell data at $10 per gigabit as it’s used. The Google phone can work on WiFi networks or will use either the Sprint or T-Mobile networks when a caller is out of range of WiFi. And there is roaming available on other carriers when a customers in not within the range of any of the preferred networks.

Cellular usage is seamless for customers and Google doesn’t even tell a customer which network they are using at any given time. They have developed a SIM card that can choose between as many as 10 different carriers although today they only have deals with the two cellular carriers. The main point of the phone is that a customer doesn’t have to deal with cellular companies any longer and just deals with Google. There are no contracts and you only pay for what you use.

Google still only supports this on their own Nexus phones for now although the SIM card could be made to work in numerous other phones. Google is letting customers pay for the phones over time similar to what the other cellular carriers do.

Google is pushing the product harder in markets where it has gigabit networks. Certainly customers that live with slow or inconsistent broadband won’t want their voice calls routing first to WiFi.

The main issue I see from the product is that it is an arbitrage business plan. I define anything as arbitrage that relies on using a primary resource over which the provider has no control. Over the years a lot of my clients are very familiar with other arbitrage plans that came and went at the whim of the underlying providers. For example, there have been numerous wholesale products sold through Sprint like long distance, dial tone, and cellular plans that some of my clients used to build into a business plan, only to have Sprint eventually decide to pull the plug and stop supporting the wholesale product.

I am sure Google has tied down Sprint and T-Mobile for the purchase of wholesale voice and texting for some significant amount of time. But like with any arbitrage situation, these carriers could change their mind in the future and strand both Google and all of their customers. I’m not suggesting that will happen, but I’ve seen probably a hundred arbitrage opportunities come and go in the marketplace during my career and not one of them lasted as long as promised.

It’s been rumored that Apple is considering a similar plan. If they do, then the combined market power of both Google and Apple might make it harder for the underlying carriers to change their mind. But at the end of the day only a handful of companies own the vast majority of the cellular spectrum and they are always going to be the ones calling the shots in the industry. They will continue with wholesale products that make them money and will abandon things that don’t.

There are analysts who have opined that what Google is doing is the inevitable direction of the industry and that cellular minutes will get commoditized much in the manner as long distance in the past. But I think these analysts are being naive. AT&T and Verizon are making a lot of money selling overpriced cellular plans to people. These companies have spent a lot of money for spectrum and they know how to be good monopolists. I still laugh when I think about how households that used to spend $30 to $50 per month for a landline and long distance now spend an average of $60 per family member for cellphones. These companies have done an amazing job of selling us on the value of the cellphone.

Perhaps the analysts are right and Google, maybe with some help from Apple, will create a new paradigm where the carriers have little choice but to go along and sell bulk minutes. But I just keep thinking back to all of the past arbitrage opportunities where the buyers of the service were also told that the opportunity would be permanent – and none of them were.

2 thoughts on “Google’s Experiment with Cellular Service

  1. “Minutes”? What are “minutes”? As we said in the ’90’s selling the first VoIP products: “One day voice will just be another app just like email”. Ditto for VoIP over wi-fi or LTE…

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    • Touche Frank. But I can promise you that this arrangement has T-Mobile and Sprint selling cellular minutes to Google. When those phones operate on WiFi then it’s all VoIP, but when a Google customer is out in the cellular world we are still living in a world of resold cellular minutes. It’s certainly not inconceivable that these companies have all agreed upon some sort of data-only roaming, but that would be an industry first And even if that’s how it’s structured, the underlying carriers still have the ultimate power in the relationship (other than the ultimate threat in that working with somebody like Google or Apple that those companies could buy them if they don’t like the future relationship). If Google ever buys one of them then we would see the new paradigm that the analysts think they are seeing. But only a spectrum owner can make that happen, not somebody who is buying that spectrum secondhand.

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