Whatever you might believe about the potential impact of Google’s Project Fi on the mobile establishment, one thing is certain: Google — one of the world’s most powerful and successful agents of change — looked at the mobile industry and saw an opportunity to innovate and disrupt.
It saw an industry which excels at delivering complex technology evolution but also one in structural stasis; its core operational model unchanged for decades. By stating its intention to push the boundaries of possibility in smartphone connectivity, Google disclosed its assessment that nobody else was pushing those boundaries.
Google’s big idea — that a connectivity service built from multiple, overlapping resources should be inherently superior in terms of coverage and capacity — is nothing new. But its execution of that idea, using software to build an aggregated network, is momentous. The result is a network greater than the sum of its parts; immediately on a part with much larger competing networks.
Compare this to the processes by which mobile operators amalgamate networks, either through sharing arrangements or as part of costly, time-consuming M&A activity. The aim in these instances, the metric by which success is judged, is almost always the removal of network assets; the eradication of overlapping capacity. These are radically different philosophies.
In the first two instalments in this series exploring Project Fi, we looked at what Google’s MVNO might mean for operators and smartphone vendors. We sought to gauge the extent of the threat it represents to the industry’s balance of power.
The great unknown in this process, of course, is Google’s appetite for expansion. Does Google really want to strike multiple wholesale deals and create consumer propositions and customer service organisations in already competitive mobile markets around the world?
Maybe, maybe not. But the more interesting question is whether it even needs to.
As we have already suggested, Google’s intent with Project Fi might simply be to show that it can be done, clearing a path for other service providers to launch similarly aggregated connectivity plays. If Google wanted to make it easy for others to replicate Project Fi, though, it would need to give them more than evidence it was possible; it would need to give them the tools to do it themselves.
So here’s an idea which might seem fanciful but which is entirely within the realm of possibility: Maybe Google will simply embed the network selection capabilities at the heart of the Project Fi service into the Android OS.
Hundreds of millions of Android devices would have the ability to switch between competing mobile networks, and public Wi-Fi, automatically and at will. To paraphrase a popular meme: “We are Android. You will be aggregated. Resistance is Futile.”
Imagine the potential for existing MVNOs, and adjacent service providers looking to add mobility to a bundle.
Imagine the impact on mobile operators’ longstanding control over device supply: Why would anyone buy a smartphone from an operator if it were not tied to that operator? Why not just buy it directly from the manufacturer?
Imagine the effect this inherent capability could have on the battle between Android and iOS.
There is a precedent in the shape of Google’s extension of Wi-Fi Assistant to all Nexus devices, announced in August. Wi-Fi Assistant automatically connects devices to available public Wi-Fi deemed acceptable by Google. It highlights the reality that the handset is the best place to make decisions about the quality of available connectivity, and reminds us that ever more power is in the operating system, and in the hands of the consumer.
Not everyone believes Project Fi will have a lasting impact. For some the momentum of the mobile operator establishment appears impossible to stop. But great momentum also makes it difficult to change direction, even in the face of sudden and urgent need. How many of you used Nokia handsets once upon a time? How many of you still do?
Great momentum has made it difficult for operators to innovate in the service. That momentum has opened the door to Google, Facebook, Apple and many other digital disruptors with intensely loyal customer bases and almost unimaginably deep pockets. These are entities with resources and philosophies which fuel endless experimentation, the results of which cannot be put back in the box.
Google has created a mobile connectivity service which has multiple networks clamouring to carry its bags. It has done so because, first, no single network can provide all of the connectivity the user needs all of the time and, second, because doing so weakens the position of its wholesale providers. It is an idea which we believe will prove highly contagious, and quick to spread.
Industry thinking must evolve such that any network comes to be understood as only one underlying component of a connectivity service. Much as operators move customers onto other mobile networks when they roam, so they must look to extend their service to other available networks wherever it benefits the consumer to do so.
Just as important, they must find ways to derive additional benefits and revenues from doing so for themselves. After all, Google makes money from every network which carries its services and advertising.
Operators must choose whether they want to offer a service which is bigger than their network, or simply contribute a network to third parties with altogether bigger ideas about service.