Ending the dark age of telecom with the help of Google

(Warning: This is more of a rant than anything else. Now you know, up-front.)

I was extremely excited to read that it appears Google will be going into the wireless carrier business. Coming off the heels of Nexus 4 (which is causing me to ditch my current carrier even though it will mean I will drop from LTE to HSPA+, just to stop supporting innovation stifling business practices on the part of the carriers), it’s perfect timing. Suddenly, it looks Google might be in a position to finally realize my long-held fantasy of the wireless carrier as a bit pipe. Gone would be the days of artificial pricing structures that are orthogonal to the actual cost of services rendered (an unfortunate reality not limited to carriers).

I will avoid going into a long rant about appropriate pricing structures and the negative consequences of artificial restrictions, because the main topic I want to discuss is this: Google becoming a wireless carrier would fuel anti-Google sentiment held by those who are not comfortable with one single company dominating and controlling a large portion of the services and technology used in day-to-day life. It’s a valid concern; regardless of past track record, entrusting a single entity with too much power is risky (that includes, btw, entities that happen to be governments, even if elected by the people – but I’m diverging…).

In the end, while I agree that it is a valid concern, I am still extremely excited about developments like this. Android (and the iPhone) have already hit all old-style legacy phone manufacturers with a clue bat, forcing them to either change or stop dominating the market with outright crappy products (and they were, even before iPhone/Android came out as a contrast). Selling their own phones directly to consumers without carrier intervention is the first step in doing the same to the carriers, and launching their own wireless provider may be the final nail in the coffin that forces legacy carriers to change or see their market domination slowly erode to non-existence. Here’s hoping.

Why is Google seemingly taking over so much of our lives (Android, gmail, Chrome, Google Docs, Google Calendar, etc)? While Google is obviously trying to make a profit, I am not going for the “big Company” conspiracy theory cop-out. Rather, in my opinion, while Google does a lot of things, some of them failures, they have a track record of coming out with products or services that simply blow the competition completely away in game-changing ways. The first example of course was the search that started it all – remember back in the days of AltaVista, Hotbot, Lycos? Remember how suddenly within the span of a few months the way you searched the internet changed, with the introduction of Google?

In this particular case, working on the premise that Google will indeed be launching a carrier, they are doing something which has been the obvious end-game for several years. It’s not that they are doing something original in the sense of an idea, or that they’re doing something no one else thought of. They are doing the reasonable thing; the enabling factor here is that they can in combination with whatever internal Google workings allow the company to actually want to do it (instead of behaving like the typical legacy company). Myself and friends were discussing fantasy of the future data-only world back when 3G was new. We obviously weren’t alone; I’m sure hundreds of thousands of people had similar discussions. The key is that none of those people were able to make it happen.

Is it a good or a bad thing that Google will start taking over another area of our day-to-day lives (the wireless carrier)? My claim is that if it is to be considered bad, the root cause is not that Google is being evil, irresponsible, or anything else of that sort. The root cause is that all other options suck and Google is the first company to offer an alternative that does not. In an area where you have to be huge to compete, innovation will tend to suffer because you are relying on one out of a few very large companies getting their act together and doing something innovative – even if it means a seeming short-term drop in profits. It is rare for a large corporation to “get it” and do the reasonable thing, no matter how obvious it might seem to lots of people who cannot do anything about it.

Here’s my request: To everyone who is uncomfortable with Google taking over more and more, I urge you not to complain about Google. Instead, complain about everyone else. Refuse to accept the stupidity of the alternatives out there. Argue with your carrier’s customer support when they try to make you pay a “tethering” charge after you already payed (supposedly) for a certain amount of bandwidth. Argue with your carrier when they try to tell you that you can only get the latest and greatest phone if you also commit to a contract. Encourage your friends and family not to accept these things. Support the alternative options, and make it known why. Explain to people who are not knee deep in technical knowledge why it makes no sense whatsoever to pay $0.1 to send a text message (nor did it 10 years ago), and how the prices only serve to lure you into more expensive “unlimited text” plans – by making the alternative be crap, instead of providing something good. Complain when your carrier tells you that you are now allowed to use VoIP on their network. Explain to them that they should provide a superior voice calling service if they want you to use it, rather than block superior alternatives that exist. Carrot, not the stick. Complain when they give you a crippled version of an expensive phone (such as removing Google Wallet). Complain when they require you to sign up for a minimum $40/month plan for minutes, if all you want is data and are likely to spend a maximum of 5 minutes per months actually using your minutes. Complain when they delay updates to your Android phone by months. Support phones like the Nexus 4 that are sold directly to consumers without any lock-in.

Let’s all do our best to end the dark age of telecom.

End of rant.

2 Comments on “Ending the dark age of telecom with the help of Google”

  1. Thomas says:

    I’m probably the last person you’d expect to disagree with you, but one counter argument is that for at least VoIP vs mobile telecoms they are trying to prevent a certain race to the bottom.

    The phone companies give you less quality over the years (cf analog mobile) (albeit to lower prices over the years), and they are greedy monsters.
    VoIP providers lower prices (but give you less quality, e.g. problems connecting), and they are freedom fighters of the communications era.

    Telecoms can’t compete with Skype on mobile on price, because Skype on mobile sucks ass compared to vanilla mobile voice calls.

    Seems to me that you’re ranting against the US model, and don’t have as much problems with the European one.

    • Yeah, what I’m describing is very much the US model. I’m not up to date on the status in Sweden, though I remember the system slowly creeping towards more lock-in.

      In terms of quality; a cell phone call is the worst possible way for me to communicate with anyone since moving to the US. I don’t know why since it’s presumably the same technology, but quality has just been completely useless to the point that I am frustrated every time I’m on the phone with someone.

      In terms of Skype; it seems to work fine over LTE. I’ve also used Google Voice over LTE (actual VoIP, not the Google Voice integration with the phone which uses the carrier for the calls). My experience thus far has been good, although I can’t claim significant experience since I make most calls from the desktop.

      It’ll be interesting to see what works and not on HSPA+ on T-Mobile, once I get my hands on a Nexus 4 and switch providers.

      I certainly buy the argument in theory that a quality drop may be the result of low prices. But, (1) I’m not seeing the good quality, and (2) it’s not really about low prices, but about freedom and paying for what you actually use and care about. For example, instead of $40/month for “minutes”, I’d prefer to pay the same amount for data – and then be allowed to use it without restrictions.

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