Google's End Run Around the Wireless Carriers

In a recently published patent, Google describes a vision for an open wireless world, one in which mobile devices (and smartphones in particular) are no longer married to particular cellular service providers.

When you buy a phone in the United States today, you typical have to sign a contract that prevents you from using that phone with more than one provider for a predetermined amount of time. You’ll encounter no such requirement when purchasing a laptop, which can be used to connect to the internet through any service provider at any time.

The Google patent for “Flexible Communication Systems and Methods” contends that cellphone users should also have the freedom to connect through various networks and methods, and that the communication service they choose at any particular time and location should be determined by competitive market forces.

The idea is that you could, for example, make phone calls and browse the internet on your smartphone via WiFi when at home, Verizon when downtown, and perhaps AT&T when out in the countryside. You’d base your decision on both pricing and quality of service, with the quality of coverage in your current location playing a major role.

In a way, the iPhone has already given us a taste of what this would be like. When near a WiFi hotspot, you can decide on the fly whether to surf the internet using 3G/EDGE or WiFi. Most people choose WiFi because it’s faster (and probably free, unless you’re at an airport or cafe). But you may go with 3G/EDGE instead because it’s more secure (no worrying about the traffic sniffing that occurs on open WiFi networks). With VoIP applications now available for the iPhone, you can make this decision for your phone calls as well.

Now imagine that this choice was available when on-the-go, and that you had five service providers to choose from instead of just two. It’s not hard to imagine that the competition would lead to lower costs and better service. Not to mention, you wouldn’t get stuck with a crummy carrier after moving or traveling to a place that has poor coverage.

As Unwired View emphasizes, and the patent outlines explicitly, such a system would require “a transparent auction marketplace with wireless providers bidding in real time to provide the communication services to users.” Google may be well-suited to establish such a marketplace because of its experience with AdWords and AdSense. The carriers themselves would resist such a scenario with tooth and nail because they’d become dumb pipe providers that couldn’t lock users into contracts any longer.

The patent is part of Google’s broader agenda to get as many people online as possible with as many devices as possible. Hence the gPhone, its pressure on the FCC, and Larry Page’s bristling in support of open white spaces. The opening of white spaces in particular could lead to more connection points for mobile devices, ones that form an attractive alternative to those provided by wireless carriers. And Android-powered phones could be among the first to take advantage of a flexible connections system.