The Google Phone Won't Open Up the Wireless Industry

I had hoped that today’s announcement of Google’s phone would be another iPhone-like bomb set to disrupt wireless carriers and bring a future of affordable, open and ubiquitous mobile connectivity to pass. Apple pried open the carrier ecosystem with the iPhone, and its decisions to open up geolocation information and create an app store hurt the business model the carriers rely on even more than the incredible data use it ushered in.

I’d anticipated that given Google’s focus on opening up the 700 MHz auction, pushing white spaces broadband and investment in WiMAX, the Nexus One also would be a hardware-based crowbar. It isn’t, and Google so far seems to be working with the carriers even as it offers its own web store for Android devices. But if Google wants to bring about affordable and open wireless to everyone, as well as encourage more competition in the wireless industry, here are a few steps it should take to bring that about.

Build a phone that can roam: Right now, cell phones are using different wireless technologies and are tuned to various spectrum bands, so unlike choosing say, a WiFi-enabled device, one has to know what type of cell technology you want to operate the device on, such as a CDMA or HSPA network, and you have to know which spectrum you need the signals to travel over.

Without being able to buy a cellular phone or device with the right radios that are tuned to the correct swaths of spectrum, manufacturers still have to choose which carriers they want to build for. This means costs for components can’t drop as rapidly as possible and that some carriers might have a hard time convincing folks to build devices for them.

A software-defined radio could be the key for such a universal handset. Google could contribute dollars or talent to making SDRs  faster, cheaper and more power-efficient so they work inside mobile phones.

Get carriers to ditch SIM cards: The SIM card is the key to the cellular kingdom. Unlike access to a Wi-Fi network or even a corporate LAN, which requires a password and a user name to access, cellular networks only open up to devices that contain the right SIM card. Carriers say they need SIM cards because they’re more secure than a user name and password combo.

But if a consumer wants to put his device on a different network, he has to swap out the SIM or even the gadget itself. This is a barrier to consumers switching networks. If Google can convince a carrier to let a SIM-free device (perhaps biometric access to a network would be secure enough for carriers) onto its network, then we could see the beginning of a world where it’s easy for a device to use the best, lowest-cost network available and pricing for mobile broadband comes way down.

If Google can help build devices that can roam anywhere, across a variety of networks, including Wi-Fi, and can push carriers to find another way to authenticate people on their networks without sacrificing security, then they could release a device that could be just as disruptive as the iPhone.

Related Research: Google’s Mobile Strategy
Google’s mobile strategy is about more than just capturing new ad revenue — its about enabling innovation and boosting access.

Thumbnail image courtesy of Flickr user dahlstroms.

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