With the launch of Project Fi, Google told the world what it thinks about the role of the mobile operator in connectivity service provision. By requiring its operator partners to compete for the right to connect the end user wherever their networks overlap — with one another, or with freely shared Wi-Fi — Google puts its ‘partners’ in what it clearly believes is their rightful place.
Nobody forced Google’s three wholesale partners to participate, of course. One particularly mischievous element of Project Fi is that, by design, it promises to reward the wholesale partner with the best-performing network; something which, in one way or another, most mobile operators claim to have. No doubt there will be upside for Project Fi’s wholesale suppliers, in the short term at least.
Google also has some rather important device partners, between them responsible for putting the Android OS and its wider ecosystem into billions of hands worldwide. There is a mutual dependency at play here: Google needs vendors to create products, vendors need Android in order to play in a market which appears unable to sustain a third mobile platform.
And yet Google seems just as intent on provoking device vendors as it does network operators.
In August this year, Google made Wi-Fi Assistant — the software element which auto-connects Project Fi devices to certain public Wi-Fi networks — available to all Nexus-brand Android smartphones across a number of key markets.
The benefit of Wi-Fi Assistant to the MVNO play is clear; whenever customers are connected to Wi-Fi, Project Fi slips the leash of its wholesale costs. But there is no such upside in giving it to all Nexus users in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the UK, and Nordic countries, where Wi-Fi Assistant will soon be available.
Instead Google positions the development as a user benefit; a means of slashing cellular data costs and maintaining high quality smartphone connectivity irrespective of the mobile network’s reach and capacity in the moment.
It appears now that building Wi-Fi Assistant into these devices was part of Google’s groundwork for a more muscular approach to the handset market, an approach which took physical form with the introduction last week of the Pixel, which will replace the Nexus sub-brand from here on in.
The Pixel, the first device for which Google has closely controlled both the hardware and software, will of course be available on Project Fi. But it will also be supplied by a number of top tier mobile operators internationally, as outlined in Google’s announcements last week.
A smartphone which automatically connects to a pool of shared public Wi-Fi networks to augment the experience and reduce cost is valuably and tangibly differentiated. The beauties of individual vendors’ interpretations of Android are, both by comparison and definition, largely skin-deep.
The availability of Wi-Fi Assistant on Google’s devices suggests the firm is asking serious questions of competing Android devices from leading vendors: “What does this smartphone do to improve its owners’ connectivity experience? How does it keep them online at indoor locations where the mobile data service is found wanting? How does it save them money?” It raises the bar for Android smartphone comparisons.
The spread of Wi-Fi Assistant delivers other significant benefits to Google. While it cannot test international enthusiasm for the full-fat Fi experience, offering a core piece of it to millions of consumers through a simple software upgrade will yield important insights into potential demand.
And, of course, it allows Google to rattle the operators’ cages with a little more vigour. With Wi-Fi Assistant on all its branded devices, Google is positioning itself to move operators’ customers, using operator-supplied (and in some cases subsidized) devices, away from operators’ own networks.
End users no longer have to be customers of Google’s MVNO to allow Google to insert itself between them and the operator, empowering it with the responsibility for key connectivity decisions.
Moreover, as with Project Fi in the U.S., Google will be able to use Wi-Fi Assistant to build an understanding of precisely when and where Wi-Fi delivers a measurable improvement to the user experience offered by mobile operators.
The wider deployment of Wi-Fi Assistant may have been positioned as a small step, made public with the minimum possible fanfare, and drowned out by the flurry of announcements in early October. But it can be convincingly read as part of a larger effort by Google to drive fundamental and lasting change in the power structure of the mobile industry.