Google will announce its MVNO in the “coming months”: Sundar Pichai

Google’s long rumored move to becoming a wireless carrier took one step closer to reality on Monday. At Mobile World Congress, Google’s second-in-command executive Sundar Pichai confirmed that Google is working on a becoming a mobile virtual network operator, and revealed that the Google will announce its MVNO in the coming months.

Although Pichai’s remarks on the subject were brief, he laid out Google’s aims and set expectations for the service. It’s not going to be taking on AT&T or Verizon head-on. Instead, it’s a “small scale” experiment of sorts, meant to push carriers to implement new Android features that Google’s been working on. One example Pichai provided is that when a call drops on one end, the Google MVNO will be able to automatically bring the call back.

In that way, Google’s MVNO seems like a sibling to its line of Nexus phones: It’s not meant to be a commercial force revenue- and sales-wise, but it’s intended to show Google’s long roster of partners what’s possible when they trust Google’s technology and leadership.

“It’s a very small-scale compared to the rest of the OEM industry, but it pushes the needle. I think we’re at the state where we need to think of hardware, software, and connectivity together,” Pichar said, according to the Verge. “We don’t intend to be a carrier at scale, and we’re working with existing partners.”

The fact that Google’s MVNO isn’t commercially-focused shouldn’t be a surprise. When the recent rumors of Google’s carrier ambitions started flying last month, my colleague Kevin Fitchard wrote that Google has no intention to get into the low margin business of selling minutes and data:

I could definitely see Google trying to temporarily shake things up in the industry, as the Information suggests, with a new approach to the technology and business model of wireless (it’s doing much the same thing with Google Fiber). But in the long-term, selling minutes and gigabytes, climbing towers and fielding phone calls from irate customers is not the kind of utility business Google wants to be in.

Now that it’s been confirmed that Google is becoming a wireless carrier, albeit at a small scale, speculation will center on which carrier it’s buying capacity from (likely T-Mobile and Sprint), where the service will be available (California? Or areas with Google Fiber?), and whether it will work with non-Android devices.

1:00pm ET: This story has been updated to clarify Pichai’s remarks. Google will be announcing its MVNO in the coming months, not launching it, according to Google PR, which implies availability may be some way off.

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Yep, Google wants to be a mobile carrier — again

It’s a new year, which means we’re all ready for a new round of speculation that Google will become a mobile carrier. Right on cue, The Information’s Amir Efrati published a report saying Google will shortly begin offering its own mobile plans by becoming a mobile virtual network operator – a network-less service provider that buys capacity on another carrier’s infrastructure.

I’m not trying to bust Efrati’s chops – well, maybe a little – as he’s rarely wrong, but this is a story that’s been ‘evolving’ for the better part of the decade. Last year, The Information reported very much the same story with a few details changed. At that time Google was in discussions with [company]Verizon[/company] and [company]Sprint[/company] to use their networks. Today the discussions are with Sprint and [company]T-Mobile[/company] and the effort has a code name, “Nova.”

One other new detail of significance: Efrati reports that Google views this project as an “experiment” aimed at challenging the status quo in the U.S. mobile industry. That’s an interesting thing to note because there’s definitely precedent for Google monkeying around with the industry to get carriers to change their behavior.

In 2008, [company]Google[/company] entered the 700 MHz spectrum auction bidding right alongside Verizon for airwaves that would eventually become the foundation of Big Red’s LTE networks. Google readily admitted it didn’t want to win that spectrum and become a 4G service provider. It just wanted to force the eventual winner beyond a price threshold that would ensure those airwaves would be open to any device or application. The ploy worked.

As I’ve stated on many forums I really doubt Google has any interest in becoming a full-fledged mobile carrier. I’m not saying it’s outside the realm of possibility – Google had done far crazier things, such as Project Loon. I’ve even written posts speculating what a potential “Google Wireless” might look like. And sure, I could definitely see Google trying to temporarily shake things up in the industry, as the Information suggests, with a new approach to the technology and business model of wireless (it’s doing much the same thing with Google Fiber). But in the long-term, selling minutes and gigabytes, climbing towers and fielding phone calls from irate customers is not the kind of utility business Google wants to be in.

Who knows? After years of rumors and speculation, maybe this is what Google Wireless was always meant to be: a virtual carrier selling time on someone else’s network (perhaps with a little added help from hopped-up Wi-Fi hotspots in Google Fiber markets). It’s definitely more feasible then some of the other rumors like Google buying T-Mobile or purchasing its own spectrum.

Or this could just be another red herring. At this point I suspect the tech media wants Google to become a mobile carrier much more than Google does.