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Summary:

Just after announcing Google Voice integration for all of its customers, Sprint follows up with the Google Nexus S 4G WiMAX handset. Do these two collaborations, in conjunction with AT&T’s planned purchase of T-Mobile, mean more Sprint partnerships with Google, or perhaps even a buy-out?

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It’s a Google day for Sprint. Earlier today, the company announced it would integrate Google Voice service across all of its handsets and took the covers off the Google Nexus S 4G. The phone is a CDMA version of the Nexus S that launched late last year with the Gingerbread edition of Android and takes advantage of Sprint’s WiMAX network. Sprint says the phone is “coming soon,” with a price tag of $199 after 2-year contract and the Everything Data Plan and Premium Data add-on.

The inclusion of the WiMAX radio is a step up from the original Nexus S. Both the versions for AT&T and T-Mobile use a 7.2 Mbps radio, which limits the mobile broadband speeds. Both carriers are currently boosting their network capabilities, ranging from 14.4 to 42 Mbps theoretical downloads. The new Nexus S 4G won’t see downloads in that range either, but in areas of solid WiMAX, coverage could hit 10 Mbps peak speeds.

Aside from the access to Sprint’s network, the Nexus S 4G is largely unchanged from its GSM counterpart. The device, built by Samsung, uses a 1GHz single-core Hummingbird CPU, 4-inch Super AMOLED display, 16 GB non-expandable internal storage, dual cameras that don’t record high-definition video, and support for reading NFC, or near field communications, which are tags likely to become used for wireless payments. Of course, tight integration with Google’s apps and services are the main draw for the Nexus S line, as are faster access to software updates from Google.

When combined with other recent telecom news, the sudden and prominent partnerships between Google and Sprint raise some interesting thoughts about the future. Now that AT&T is purchasing T-Mobile for $39 billion in cash and stock, Sprint is on the outside looking in as a distant third carrier. And Google may be losing a key Android partner in T-Mobile; a carrier that has arguably supported Google’s Android strategy more than any other.

An eventual Google purchase of Sprint is a long shot at best, but is possible. Such a deal would, of course, face regulatory scrutiny, but, for the sake of argument, let’s assume it happens. Google would then not only have a viable software platform, but also could wrest carrier control away by becoming a carrier of its own. At that point, the company could subsidize smartphones with the data and ad revenues it receives by users of its Android operating system.

Of course, the other big issue is one my colleague Stacey pointed out: if Google were to buy Sprint and go down the path I’ve described, it runs the big risk of alienating both its existing hardware partners as well as the other carriers. That’s a fair point, but for handset makers that don’t have an operating system of their own, such as HTC, they have little current choice but to use a platform from either Google or Microsoft. Samsung could rely on its Bada platform, but Android’s growth has made these handset makers somewhat dependent upon the platform. The same momentum would likely keep other carriers from abandoning Android as well. What platform would Motorola, HTC, LG and others turn to?

A year or two ago, I would have been more apt to share Stacey’s concern, but, at this point, consumers, carriers and handset makers have an Android addiction that limits Google’s exposure if it were to acquire Sprint. That doesn’t mean a Sprint buy-out is in the cards for Google, but there’s one less barrier. And if nothing else, I anticipate more partnerships that show Sprint to be Google’s new BFF, mainly due to AT&T’s play for T-Mobile.

  1. Spot on. What this is all actually demonstrating (to the consternation of some old telecom folks) is how much this market has really broadened, and what the concept of “telecom” now includes. Just as devices that used to be separate increasingly compete for the same uses, the communications market is now a contest between companies who used to operate in separate spheres.

    Just last week, I read someone musing about how great it would be if Google dumped some of their massive resources into a competing broadband network. But, maybe a play for wireless is a different step into broadband territory.

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  2. I don’t think Google will buy Sprint ever. The DNA of telcos is very different than a software company.Although it may be great injection of new thought and intellectual capital to otherwise slow moving and technologically backward carriers.

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  3. It would be interesting to see what Google could do if they owned a carrier and how far they could really push Android without worrying about carrier hassles. Verizon, more so than AT&T, would be extremely hard pressed not use Android phones since a large portion of their popular handsets are Android. But on the other hand, since Verizon now has the iPhone they could trim their diversity in Androids and push the iPhone more heavily. If Google bought Sprint, they could find themselves in a hard pressed situation if Verizon and AT&T/T-Mobile decided to use the iPhone and Windows platforms, especially now that Nokia can develop the Windows platform any way they choose. Nobody wants to sell their competitor’s merchandise and as ususal, the ones to suffer the most would be customers.

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  4. “Google Voice allows free calls and texts in the U.S. and Canada”
    This is true for your pc/mac but on a sprint phone with google voice the outbound/inbound calls still use plan minutes and do not get the benefit of free mobile to (any carrier)mobile that sprint offers. Everything going through google voice appears as a landline call.

    I love google voice but just for my pc/mac…

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    1. We don’t know the specifics just yet. I can’t imagine that would be the case. I would think that they’ve also found a solution to the lack of MMS using GV.

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  5. I have the Google nexus s and sprint data service and sprint stores are taught that no sprint digital lounge apps such assprint tvcambe loaded on this phone.Great phone but the everything data plan isn’t working for everyone

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