Google and Facebook are investing in next generation mobile infrastructure such as drones and balloons, though not because they want to become network operators, but because they want to accelerate the process of getting internet access, and their services, to everyone on the planet. Google’s activities, over the years, have encompassed metro area WiFi; a flirtation with WiMAX; deployments and trials to advance flexible spectrum usage in white spaces and 3.5 GHz; and many other efforts to break the boundaries of the wireless network and its associated operator model.
It has talked about several interesting extensions to these efforts in recent days, including an additional network partner for its US MVNO, Project Fi; the potential integration of wireless into Google Fiber; and further tests in the US 3.5 GHz shared spectrum band.
Google has added a third network partner, US Cellular, to the multi-network Project Fi. That means the device can be routed to the best connection with a choice of three – T-Mobile and Sprint being the others. Google says US Cellular’s LTE service in “23 states, both urban and rural” will be merged into the Project Fi network.
This flexible, always-best-connected approach is just as important to future mobile broadband business models as balloons, and a lot closer to reality. Fi is important not for its market share, but for the way it blazes a trail towards a far more flexible way to use spectrum and network capacity, with devices able to move seamlessly and intelligently to the best connection; and networks able to support large numbers of service providers on an on-demand basis.
Project Fi’s SIM cards and radios enable a “network of networks”, with the handsets measuring the available connections and switching to the fastest or best quality one automatically. The Fi-compatible phones are currently the Google Nexus 6, 5X and 6P. Fi is a good example of Google’s attempt to build a highly differentiated, and highly Google-centric, user experience for Android, with Nexus as the vehicle. The Fi bundle includes services like Google Hangouts, plus full WiFi functionality, unlimited voice and text, and many internet fetaures.
At its shareholder meeting last week, Google’s parent firm Alphabet talked about complementing fiber with fixed wireless technology. This is a time-honored way to lower the cost of extending broadband into hard-to-reach places, of course, but will be able to deliver near-fiber levels of performance once 5G kicks in. That is certainly the hope of AT&T and Verizon, both of which will initiate 5G roll-out with fixed services.
Alphabet’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt is having similar thoughts, but focused on fixed wireless technology which is available now. Asked about the issue at the meeting, he said: “The simple answer is that there appear to be wireless solutions that are point-to-point, that are inexpensive now because of the improvements in semiconductors. These point-to-point solutions are cheaper than digging up your garden”, while still achieving gigabit speeds, he said.
Of course, this is an argument that has been made many times before, in the era of wireless local loop, of LMDS access, of metro WiFi – all of them bubbles which burst and sent many backers into obscurity or Chapter XI. Proprietary wireless fiber solutions in high frequency spectrum have typically been costly, and reserved for high value applications like financial institutions’ back-up networks; while the use of proprietary, 4G or adapted WiFi solutions for home broadband has usually involved compromises on speeds and quality, only acceptable in very rural or low value markets.
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