Can New Mobile Service Providers Save Us From Complexity? Tello Goes For It

The battle for our mobile attention has put convenience and user experience on a pedestal and, as a result, a ton friction has been removed from our day-to-day activities: shopping, ordering food, banking, traveling… But it often seems that, to gain access to these conveniences, we have no choice but to wade through complex waters, aka mobile service providers. With two-year commitments, opaque plans and fee-tangled bills, many of the carriers that enable today’s celebrated mobile innovations are not, themselves, widely celebrated.
This is why consumers might want to pay closer attention to MVNOs (mobile virtual network operators). MVNOs give you access to the major US mobile carrier networks (AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, etc.), but with their own pricing and packaging. For customers, that can translate to lower rates, more flexible contracts and better customer service. Representing a smaller segment of mobile subscribers (just one in ten US subscribers a few years back) and competing against powerhouse brands, MVNOs are the underdog in the mobile service space. This is why when a new provider enters the fray they need to work hard to stand out.
This is the challenge for the newly announced Tello. Tello runs on Sprint’s network in the US, but has been operating out of the UK for two years already. (The parent company, KeepCalling, has been around since 2002.) At the core of Tello’s US offering is a pledge for “No Fees, Whatsoever,” as in no activation fee, no overage fee, no processing fee or early termination. Tello plans can be fully customized, so you’re not paying for something you don’t use (fitting for those who don’t use their phones to, you know, make calls), and can be upgraded or downgraded easily if you find, for example, you’re hitting your data limit. Technically data is unlimited as speed is throttled down to 64kbps once you hit your limit.
Things that are also good to know, if you’re thinking about switching providers, is that you can choose to buy a phone from Tello, but there’s also the option to bring your own. As mentioned before, Tello is a contract-free service, but for those who prefer to avoid plans altogether, Tello has a Pay As You Go option that gives you the chance to buy let’s say $5 and use it for national and international calls or texts.
Of course, Tello isn’t the first provider to tackle the pain points of mobile service. Ting, for example, offers a plan that allows you to pay based on usage and carriers like T-Mobile often cover the cost of termination to facilitate switching. But scratching out every fee and keeping costs low—Tello has a customizable plan that starts at $5 monthly, or (if you want data) $9/mo for 100 minutes of talk, 200 texts and 200 MB 4G LTE—gives the company a fair chance to stand out.
Still, one of the bigger questions that comes to mind is, if MVNOs are presenting such competitive offerings, why aren’t a larger share of mobile providers using them? Is it a testimony to long term brand effects of TV advertising? Are consumers still tethered to brick and mortar, taking comfort in having a place to go if something goes awry? (Tello, for example, is exclusively online.) While these factors may have a big impact today, they may lose their foothold as new generation of cell phone users and cord cutters come to market. Tello may be ahead of it’s time—though given early adopters always seem to be ready for the next opportunity to assert their early adopter-ness, that may be an advantage unto itself.

An Apple wireless carrier? Not a wise move.

Really, Apple?

Now you want to be my wireless carrier? Are you sure that’s wise? I mean, sales of iPhone — great as they are — did not meet analyst expectations last quarter. iPad sales continue to disappoint. No one knows the actual Apple Watch sales numbers, but it seems as if nearly everyone thinks they are below original estimates. Even your biggest supporters have been mightily disappointed lately in Apple Music, the once-ubiquitous iTunes, and your software.

Given that $90 billion, yes, billion, got whacked from your market cap soon after announcing last quarter’s results, perhaps now is not the best time to tackle an entirely new line of business, especially one as messy and price-driven as wireless service.

Earlier this week, rumors ran hot that Apple was in active talks to offer a “MVNO” in the US and Europe. A traditional MVNO, or mobile virtual network operator, is a company that provides mobile service — 4G, for example — but doesn’t own the actual infrastructure. Instead, the MVNO leases capacity from an actual carrier, an AT&T or Verizon, then sells this service directly to customers.

The opportunity

Companies like Disney and ESPN have tried and failed to launch a successful MVNO. The primary problem is that no matter what clever services you offer — ad-free radio streaming that doesn’t count against your data usage, or clips of last night’s top plays — the MVNO’s costs are inevitably higher than the actual carrier’s cost, those who own the equipment.

Apple no doubt believes it has a workaround. Unlike previous MVNO efforts, Apple makes its own smartphone. This opens up numerous untapped opportunities. For example, Apple might sell a monthly plan that includes the latest iPhone, voice and data service, free Beats 1 streaming, unlimited FaceTime calls, perhaps even a Discover Card-like discount on purchases when using Apple Pay. It’s a tantalizing idea. One bill, one service provider, everything you do on your iPhone all cleanly managed by Apple. Customers would no doubt love this.

There’s still another Apple advantage. Apple already uses a SIM card in select iPads that lets the customer choose from a variety of monthly plans or pay-as-you-go options. This current iteration is a bit crude but in theory, Apple could use it’s super-popular iPhone to force multiple carriers to compete on price, offering iPhone customers the very best price across a range of carriers.

The denial

Will it happen? Uncharacteristically for Apple, the company quickly and very publicly shot down the rumor:

“We have not discussed nor do we have any plans to launch an MVNO.”

I have problems with this denial.

Firstly, “plans to launch” leaves enormous wiggle room. At present, I do not have dinner plans for tomorrow, though undoubtedly it will happen. Secondly, Apple has been keenly interested in being an MVNO since before iPhone — back when the failed Motorola Rokr was the only ‘iTunes Phone’ on the market. That original Apple patent, which the company asked to extend in 2011, was created by Tony Fadell, the former Senior VP at Apple who went on to create Nest, the home automation hardware company now owned by Google. As the original Fadell patent makes clear, Apple’s proposed MVNO wouldn’t simply lease capacity from a single network, but pit carriers against one another.

Bids are received from multiple network operators for rates at which communication services using each network operator can be obtained. Preferences among the network operators are identified using the received bids, and the preferences are used to select the network operator for the mobile device to use in conducting communications.

There’s still another clue that Apple is interested in the MVNO opportunity, despite the denial. Just last month, the Financial Times reported that both Apple and Samsung were in “advanced talks” with GSMA, a global telecom industry consortium, on an embedded SIM (eSim) card that would let mobile phone users switch from one carrier to another on the fly. Right now, the traditional SIM card locks the user’s phone to a particular network, so the potential for the eSim, planned to launch in 2016, is huge. Maybe Sprint has excess capacity in Los Angeles and you choose Sprint. Then you travel to Silicon Valley, where T-Mobile offers the best price. In theory, Apple could have software to automate all this for you, choosing the best option based on price, time and place. For those who travel from country to country, this could be a godsend.

With an MVNO, Apple controls the all the important pieces, the smartphone, the customer relationship, and has reduced carriers to little more than dumb pipes.

The problem

This is almost certainly doomed to fail.

The iPhone is the primary driver of Apple profits. Competing directly against the very carriers who market, sell and support these devices seems to stretch the bounds of corporate hubris.

Plus, the carriers control an extensive retail footprint. Apple has 265 Apple Stores in the US, but there are over 4,000 Verizon and AT&T retail outlets. Add in Sprint, T-Mobile and others, and an Apple MVNO could lead to each of these carriers limiting their support of iPhone. It’s an unnecessary risk.

As Apple blogger John Gruber noted:

Apple is a partner with all the carriers around the world that support iPhone. They can’t compete against them while partnering with them.

There’s also the potentially devastating hit to Apple’s good name. Probably the most frustrating failure of iPhone, of any smartphone, with the possible exception of battery life, is a failed connection. Dropped WiFi and spotty cell coverage can be rage-inducing. We rightly blame such failures on the carrier. With an Apple MVNO, Apple itself becomes the full target for our rage. Given that Apple’s brand is the most valued in the world, running their own MVNO seems foolhardy.

Proceed with caution

Apple is famous for seeking to own all the core pieces that directly contribute to the customer experience. Cellular service is a core aspect of that, no doubt. Meaning, no matter what an anonymous Apple spokesperson says, this rumor is unlikely to die. This is doubly so now that Google has stated it will be launching an MVNO-like service. Apple should let the urge pass.

Becoming an MVNO is simply too much risk for too little reward. Apple’s time can be better spent on fixing the problems it already has, not on adding new ones into the mix.

Ting makes it easier to connect an unlocked phone on the cheap

If you’ve got an unlocked T-Mobile or AT&T smartphone and need cheap cellular service for it, mobile virtual network operator Ting is now accepting your business.

Ting announced that its GSM network service is now in “open beta,” which means customers don’t need a invite to sign up. GSM support means that Ting is far more likely to support the devices consumers already have or want. The $9 Ting GSM SIM card allows Ting to work with most devices sold in the United States — not just with devices originally sold for GSM carriers AT&T and T-Mobile, but also many of the LTE smartphones from Verizon and Sprint that support T-Mobile frequencies.

You simply have to make sure the device you want to bring to Ting is unlocked. Here’s a quick guide to making that happen. If you don’t have an old device, or don’t want to buy one from a third-party retailer like Amazon or Best Buy, Ting sells new phones, including the iPhone 6.

Previously, Ting used Sprint’s networks exclusively, which restricted users to old Sprint devices. For its GSM network, Ting is buying capacity from T-Mobile, as Gigaom reported earlier this month. Ting is keeping its CDMA network around and users will be able to tap into speedy LTE data on both networks — although not on the same device at the same time. CDMA and GSM devices can share a single Ting account.

Ting is an interesting and inexpensive carrier even among MVNOs. Its pay-for-what-you-use plans don’t bundle services like data and minutes. So if you find yourself using lots of text messages but you’re always on Wi-Fi, or are a data fiend but never text, Ting could save you money by only charging for what you use.

Ting warns that its service on GSM networks is “not quite perfect yet.” It doesn’t support international roaming or international dialing, for instance, but since your device has to be unlocked if it’s on Ting, when you travel you can simply slip a local SIM card in. If you’re interested in trying Ting out, first take a look at its tool that checks if your device will work on its networks.

Artemis is building a 4G network in SF to prove its pCell tech works

For the last year WebTV creator Steve Perlman has been trying to convince a skeptical wireless industry that his most recent startup Artemis Networks has developed an LTE technology that solves the mobile data capacity crunch, and now he aims to prove it. Artemis is building a network using its pCell LTE technology that will cover most of San Francisco using Dish Network’s spectrum.

Steve Perlman

Steve Perlman

[company]Dish[/company] is leasing the PCS spectrum it acquired at auction last year to Artemis so it can install its transmitters on San Francisco rooftops by wireless ISP Webpass. Once it’s complete, which according to Perlman could be as soon as this fall, it will sell unlimited 4G data and voice-over-LTE plans to consumers via SIM cards that they can plug into any iPhone 6 and 6 Plus as well as select Android handsets.

Artemis’s ultimate goal, though, isn’t to become a full-fledged mobile carrier competing with the likes of [company]AT&T[/company] and [company]Verizon[/company], Perlman told me in an interview. Instead, Perlman is building this network as a kind of grand experiment to prove to the world that his pCell technology really works. “I’ll be honest,” he said. “We have a credibility problem.”

It sounds plain crazy

pCell flies in the face of a decade of cellular networking wisdom, which states that mobile data networking technologies improve only incrementally. The progression from 2G to 3G to 4G has been about squeezing more bits per second into a hertz of spectrum, but even crossing the single bit-per-hertz threshold was a hard-fought gain. Now Artemis claims it can improve that spectral efficiency by a factor of 35 by replacing big tower-mounted macrocells with a dense layer of pCells distributed throughout a city.

Artemis pCell

While devices normally have to share the available capacity of the network, Artemis claims its technology will deliver the theoretical maximum speed to every device it connects to, no matter how many smartphones or tablets are competing for attention. Artemis has demonstrated this by placing dozens of iPhones side by side all streaming different videos over the same spectrum, something that would be nearly impossible on standard LTE networks.

pCell accomplishes this by turning the topology of cellular networks inside out. Typically, cells are deployed in a manner that avoids interference. A transmitter sits in the center of a cell and neighboring cells are spaced far enough apart that their signals don’t interfere with one another. We, the users, move throughout these generally interference-free zones and expect to always find a clear signal.

Artemis, however, isn’t creating a grid of non-interfering cells. It’s throwing its signals straight at one another, creating a network where the vast majority of physical space contains a miasma of cross-interfering airwaves. But according to Perlman, there is order in that chaos. Artemis is really shaping the radio airwaves to create tiny oases of pristine signal reception — the pCells themselves — which just happen to be centered on wherever our devices are in the network.

It’s a hard concept to wrap your mind around, but it helps if you think of the network like a pond and each transmitter like a pebble. A pebble dropped into the pond creates ripples, or waves, that radiate outward, much like a cell tower transmits today. If you throw a bunch of pebbles into the pond, the crossing ripples create new, more complex patterns. If you were to drop thousands of pebbles at precise intervals and at specific places into that pond, you could shape those patterns into very intricate shapes. That’s what Perlman claims his pCells can do: paint the Mona Lisa in the airwaves with crisscrossing transmissions. Instead of the perfect smile, though, pCells are really crafting three-dimensional cells that can follow any device through the network.

pCell versus a regular cellular topology

pCell versus a regular cellular topology

If that sounds far-fetched to you, then trust me — you’re not alone. I’ve talked to several mobile networking veterans who — while acknowledging that Perlman’s claims are theoretically possible — are very skeptical that Artemis can pull off such a feat with today’s technology. The limited technical explanations Artemis has so far provided just haven’t been good enough to convince them otherwise. As one CTO of a major global mobile carrier put it, “Artemis needs to show its math.”

In the pudding

Perlman said he’s taken those criticisms to heart, and Artemis is now taking a series of steps to quell that skepticism. Artemis is releasing a detailed technical white paper this week that Perlman said will answer many of the remaining questions about pCell technology, but most importantly, Artemis will show by doing, Perlman said.

The San Francisco network will let anyone willing to slot an Artemis SIM card into their phone test the technology for themselves, Perlman said. Furthermore, Artemis is performing a more intimate pCell trial in Santa Clara’s Levi’s Stadium with VentureNext to test out the technology in heavily trafficked indoor areas. Finally, it’s releasing its first commercial product, called the Artemis I Hub, to carriers to test pCells in their own networks.

Perlman said he believes all of these efforts will provide both the science and the empirical data to convince pCell’s doubters of the technology’s merits.

Photo from Shutterstock/Gang Liu

As for the San Francisco network, Artemis still has to jump through some hoops to bring it online. Perlman said he wants to offer a full-fledged mobile service that SF residents can use to replace their regular carriers. That means Artemis will have to build a network comprised of thousands of pWaves (its pCell transmitters) on Webpass’s 600 rooftops scattered throughout the city.

Artemis also has to build the core infrastructure to support a VoLTE service so its customers can make phone calls and send text messages. And it needs to strike a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) deal with a nationwide mobile carrier so its customers can roam outside of the city limits. Finally, Artemis needs to get Federal Communications Commission approval for the project.

If all goes according to plan, Artemis could start selling SIM cards this fall, though delays might push it to the end of the year or into next year, Perlman said. I am looking forward to trying out this network for myself.

Ting gets the iPhone 6 as it prepares to launch its GSM service

Customers who subscribe to virtual operator Ting can now tap its unique pay-for-what-you-use plans with an iPhone 6 or iPhone 6 Plus. On Wednesday Ting will began activating unlocked iPhones on its network as long as they’re optimized for Sprint network.

Ting is getting access to the iPhone 6 much sooner than it has previous generation Apple devices, but in a few weeks it won’t matter. Ting VP of Marketing Michael Goldstein said that the carrier would soon start supporting GSM phones, which means it will no longer be locked down to a specific carrier’s device. As soon as a new iPhone or Samsung Galaxy or Google Nexus goes on sale, customers can activate them on Ting immediately.

Ting is a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO), a network-less carrier that buys voice, SMS and data capacity from an operator that owns its own wireless infrastructure. Since internet-domain registrar [company]Tucows[/company] launched Ting in 2012, it has used [company]Sprint[/company]’s CDMA and 4G networks exclusively, but in late February or early March it will start buying capacity from a GSM carrier as well, offering access to its 2G and 3G voice networks as well as its HSPA and LTE data networks. Goldstein wouldn’t reveal who that carrier is, but I’ve learned its [company]T-Mobile[/company], which is generally friendlier to MVNOs than the country’s other big GSM operator [company]AT&T[/company].

GSM support is a big boon for Ting because its customers have to jump through far fewer hoops to get the device they want. Previously customers had to use old Sprint phones off contract or track down a used device optimized for Sprint network and then request an unlock from the carrier. Sprint, however, placed restrictions on new devices, banning its MVNOs from offering the latest and greatest smartphones for a few months or a year after their debut. That policy changed this week as new rules went into effect that require operator to unlock devices as soon as they’re paid off.

With GSM, customers no longer have to meet a bunch of prerequisites or go through steps to get their Sprint phones unlocked and activated. They just have to slot a Ting SIM card into any unlocked GSM phone that supports T-Mobile frequencies, which is pretty much all GSM phones sold in the U.S. as well as many of the CDMA smartphones sold by Verizon and Sprint. Customers could also go also buy their devices directly from [company]Apple[/company] or [company]Google[/company], from third-party retailers like [company]Best Buy[/company] and [company]Amazon[/company], or pick up a used device on [company]eBay[/company].

In fact sending customers off to other marketplaces to buy their phones is preferable to Ting. It wants to be the service business, not the hardware business, Goldstein said.

Here’s how to unlock your phone under the new rules

New rules governing U.S. wireless carriers went into full effect on Wednesday, although many carriers had been following the guidelines for nearly a year. These new rules are part of a voluntary “consumer code for wireless service” administered by CTIA, the main wireless trade association. All four big carriers — including AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint — have agreed to them, along with several smaller pre-paid carriers.

There’s a lot of consumer-friendly policies included in the consumer code, including new ground rules for unlocking your smartphone or tablet. Carriers in the United States lock the SIM slots on the devices they sell so you can’t take them over to a competing carrier for a better deal for service. But the new consumer code requires them to unlock devices on request and sets out clear rules for when the carriers have to comply.

How do I unlock my phone if I have AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon or Sprint?

Users often want to unlock their phone when they want to bring their device to another wireless service provider. The process is fairly straightforward, although sometimes it can be frustrating to deal with a bureaucratic system when you simply want a setting changed on a device you own.

The unlocking process varies between carriers. Generally, if you have an eligible phone or tablet, you need to get in touch with the carrier that’s locked the device, and request an unlock.

For locked AT&T phones you’ll want to visit this web form. Full documentation is available here.

For Verizon devices you’ll want to call 1-800-711-8300 and ask for a SIM unlock. Full documentation is available here.

Sprint phones can be unlocked by calling 1-888-211-4727. You can also request an unlock through a web chat. Full documentation is available here.

T-Mobile customers can unlock their devices by calling 1-877-746-0909. You can also request an unlock through a web chat. Full documentation here.

Here’s more information on how to unlock your phone on the big four U.S. carriers, including how to verify that your device is eligible, caveats in the fine print, and alternative carriers you can bring your device to. The FCC also has useful information about the process.

When can I unlock my phone if I purchased it with a contract?

As soon as you complete your service contract.

Your device is most likely considered a “postpaid” device if you paid around $200 for it as part of a two-year contract or used an upgrade payment plan like AT&T Next. According to the new policy, carriers are required to unlock devices after the customer finishes his or her contract or completes a device payment plan. So the day after you finish your 24-month agreement, or you fully pay off your phone, you can unlock your device and take it to another carrier.

When can I unlock my pre-paid phone?

One year after purchasing your device.

Although prepaid devices aren’t subsidized by a carrier, wireless companies still often provide deals on low-cost handsets which you buy up front, assuming that you will be buying prepaid minutes and data. Under the new agreement, the carrier you purchased your handset from has to unlock the device one year after you first activate it.

Should I expect to pay for unlocking services?

No.

According to the FCC, “service providers may not charge customers and former customers additional fees to unlock a device if it is eligible to be unlocked.” While unofficial — and legally protected — unlocking kiosks in malls and shopping centers might charge a fee to unlock a phone, your carrier should not if you are or were a customer.

What if I have a locked device, but I’m not a customer with the carrier the phone is locked to?

Then you might be charged a fee. The agreement says that carriers can charge a “reasonable” fee to unlock devices for consumers who were never their customers, but should ultimately unlock the device if it’s eligible. I’ve asked the carriers what they are charging, and will update this post as I get answers.

How long does it take to unlock a device?

Unfortunately, if you’re not on Sprint, you’ll need to personally request an unlock for your phone to get the process started. But the good news is that carriers are required to inform you that your device is eligible for unlocking, most likely on your bill. (Newer phones from Sprint will see their SIM slots automatically unlock when they are eligible.) Carriers have two days after receiving an unlock request to get back to the customer.

And tablets are included too, right?

Yes. Tablets are included in these new policies. If you buy an LTE iPad from the Apple Store, it will be unlocked, but tablets purchased from your carrier store — like the nearly-free Alcatel tablet T-Mobile sells — will be locked, and tablets can be treated as a postpaid device, depending on the specific terms and agreements you agreed to when you purchased your tablet.

Cable’s next step: Offer “virtual” cellular service

Cablevision has become the first cable operator to launch a smartphone running entirely off of Wi-Fi, but there’s one more thing it has to do for its mobile service to become truly mainstream. It has to become a mobile virtual network operator.

MVNOs are network-less carriers, buying voice, SMS and data capacity from an infrastructure-owning carrier like Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile. In fact, you’re probably familiar with many of them. You’re probably already familiar with many of them: [company]TracFone[/company] and Straight Talk Wireless and the branded prepaid service offered by [company]Walmart[/company] and [company]Target[/company] are just a few examples.

If [company]Cablevision[/company] has already built an extensive network of Wi-Fi to route its calls, texts and data, as my colleague Janko Roettgers pointed out, then why does it need some other carrier’s network? Well, it still needs to fill all the spaces in between those hotspots.

Comcast's hotspot network in the mid-Atlantic

Comcast’s hotspot network in the mid-Atlantic

The cablecos have long hinted at using Wi-Fi as a kind of a poor-man’s cellular, and Freewheel is the perfect example. Pricing starts at $9.95 a month, which is very cheap if you’re willing to forgo a mobile connection.

Right now Cablevision has a dense network of Optimum Wi-Fi hotspots that, coupled with your home and work networks, will probably cover, say, three quarters of the situations where you need a data connection or want to make a phone call. That’s going to appeal to several niche audiences like people in Wi-Fi-rich environments like college campuses and those willing to trade convenience for cost. Cablevision residential broadband customers might replace their home phones with Freewheel since they’re at $10 a month they’re essentially the same price.

But no Wi-Fi network has the umbrella coverage of a mobile network, nor can it support the handoff necessary for customers to move through a city without losing their connections. If Cablevision wants to make its mobile service truly mainstream, well then it needs to support true mobility.

The cable carrier enigma

The cable companies have entertained the idea of becoming carriers since 2006 when they all banded together with Sprint to buy spectrum at the Advanced Wireless Service (AWS) spectrum auctions. At the time the plan was to build their own networks with the help of Sprint and add a mobile “play” to their triple-play bundles to take AT&T and Verizon head on.

[company]Cox Communications[/company] was the only one to build a network, and that one was short-lived. The partnership with Sprint fizzled out, though [company]Comcast[/company] did become a Sprint MVNO for a few years to upsell its existing customers on smartphones. The cable companies’ carrier ambitions officially came to and end in 2012, though, when they sold off their spectrum to Verizon.

After six years of toying with the idea of being operators, why are the cable companies suddenly reviving those plans now? What’s changed is the fundamental nature of the mobile industry. Instead of voice and SMS driving carriers’ business, mobile is now primarily a data play. And more and more of that data traffic is being funneled over Wi-Fi networks, not cellular.

Stephen Stokols of FreedomPop, David Morken of Bandwidth.com, Elliot Noss of Tucows at Mobilize 2012

Dave Morken speaking at Gigaom Mobilize

“Carriers and cellular will become the mortar while Wi-Fi will be the bricks,” Bandwidth.com CEO Dave Morken said in a 2013 interview with Gigaom’s Stacey Higginbotham. He was describing a world where our primary decision in choosing a mobile data service should be based on the Wi-Fi networks available since they carry so much of our phones’ data traffic. Bandwidth’s MVNO Republic Wireless has taken its own advice to heart launching a dirt-cheap unlimited data service that leans primarily on Wi-Fi. Last year it went so far to offer a plan that eliminates cellular from the equation entirely. Since then other MVNOs like FreedomPop and Scratch Wireless have followed in Morken’s footsteps.

Eight years ago, building a mobile network meant providing a seamless voice experience everywhere. Today it’s about providing a lot of capacity in the places people consume data the most: home, work, public gathering places, commercial business districts and retail businesses. These are networks the cable operators can build themselves or cobble together through partnerships without the help of carriers and without buying spectrum (It helps that Cablevision is focused on metro NYC where there’s a dense layer of Wi-Fi).

But while Wi-Fi will act as the workhorse of the network, a cellular signal will need to fill the sizable vacuums in between. The difference between a cable MVNO of today and a cable MVNO of the last decade is that carriers are only needed to support the Wi-Fi network, not provide a backbone service.

If Cablevision or any of the other cable companies are looking for a model, they should look over the Atlantic at French ISP [company]Iliad[/company] (which recently tried to enter the U.S. by bidding on T-Mobile). Iliad launched a mobile carrier called Free Mobile that uses millions of Wi-Fi nodes built into its customer’s home broadband gateways as its core wireless network – both Comcast and Cablevision have done the same. Free then augments that capacity with its own limited 3G footprint and an MVNO deal with Orange, France’s largest carrier. In the process Iliad has jolted the once staid French mobile industry, gaining millions of subscribers and triggering a price war.

Will the carriers play ball?

If the cable companies do become MVNOs then they’ll effectively being buying capacity from the same companies they would compete against. It’s the same model Google would pursue if it becomes a mobile carrier as many news reports are suggesting.

Why would the carriers help their own competition? Traditionally carriers have only tolerated MVNOs that target demographics or services they aren’t, but some like Sprint and T-Mobile have become increasingly open to MVNOs that tread on their turf. To them a connection is a connection and a revenue stream is a revenue stream.

Photo by Peshkova/Shutterstock

Photo by Peshkova/Shutterstock

So it’s not only possible, but it’s very likely the cable industry is revisiting the idea of cellular service to supplement their growing Wi-Fi empires. There will be a lot of bumps along the way before a Cablevision phone service could match the reliability and availability of a Verizon service, but Wi-Fi technology is evolving to behave a lot more like cellular. Eventually technologies like Hotspot 2.0 will automatically connect us to available Wi-Fi using an encrypted link, and Next Generation Hotspot technology will allow one access point to hand off a voice call to another access point.

But in the meantime, you can’t beat $10 a month.

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.

 

Mobile ISP Karma plans a move into home broadband

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