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Google makes promised launch as virtual wireless operator

Reuters and Steve Rogerson
April 23, 2015
 
Google this week launched a US wireless service that switches between Wifi and cellular networks to curb data use and keep phone bills low. Acting a mobile virtual network operator, or MVNO, this is Google's first entry into the wireless industry.
 
The service will only work on the company's Nexus 6 phones and be hosted through Sprint and T-Mobile's networks, Google said in a statement.
 
Called Project Fi, it will automatically switch between the two networks and more than one million open, free Wifi spots, depending on which signal is strongest. The service will cost $20 a month plus $10 per gigabyte of data used. Customers will get money back for unused data.
 
“As mobile devices continually improve how you connect to people and information, it's important that wireless connectivity and communications keep pace and be fast everywhere, easy to use, and accessible to everyone,” said Nick Fox, Google’s vice-president of communications products, in a blog. “That's why we’re introducing Project Fi, a programme to explore this opportunity by introducing new ideas through a fast and easy wireless experience. Similar to our Nexus hardware programme, Project Fi enables us to work in close partnership with leading carriers, hardware makers, and all of you to push the boundaries of what's possible. By designing across hardware, software and connectivity, we can more fully explore new ways for people to connect and communicate.”
 
Sundar Pichai, Google's senior vice president of products, said at a Barcelona conference last month that the company was preparing to experiment with a mobile network, but that it did not intend to disrupt the wireless industry.
 
The service will be available on only one device and has limited carrier coverage, so it will not make Google a major wireless industry player, said Brian Blau, research director at Gartner.
 
If successful, however, Google's service could pressure wireless providers to lower prices further and better adapt to the rise of tablets and wearable devices, Blau added. Though some carriers, such as T-Mobile and AT&T, allow unused data to roll over, most mobile plans require customers to pay for a set amount of data each month.
 
But Google first has to "test out features they think are going to differentiate themselves", Blau said, such as being able to transition from network connectivity to Wifi.  If Google is able to provide those features, "it's very possible they could become a major wireless player in the future", Blau said.
 
Phone numbers will live in the cloud so consumers can talk and text on any connected tablet, Google said.
 
“As you go about your day, Project Fi automatically connects you to more than a million free, open Wifi hotspots we've verified as fast and reliable,” said Fox. “Once you're connected, we help secure your data through encryption. When you're not on Wifi, we move you between whichever of our partner networks is delivering the fastest speed, so you get 4G LTE in more places. We also want to help phone numbers adapt to a multi-screen world. With Project Fi, your phone number lives in the cloud, so you can talk and text with your number on just about any phone, tablet or laptop. So the next time you misplace your phone, you can stay connected using another screen.”
 
The company already has a strong presence in the mobile market through its Android operating system, which hosts some of the most popular apps, such as Gmail and Google Maps.
 
“Google has well established their brand as a technology innovator that has benefited customers in a ton of fantastic ways,” said John Legere, president and CEO of T-Mobile. “So, when our friends in Mountain View approached us with their ideas for changing up wireless, it was a no-brainer to team up with them again. T-Mobile and Google go way back. In fact, we got together to launch the world’s very first Android smartphone in 2008 – the T-Mobile G1.”
 
He said that since the cellular connection would be based on speed, he expected T-Mobile to capture the largest share of traffic coming from Project Fi. But he admitted that Project Fi would not include all of T-Mobile’s network services, such as HD voice and next-generation Wifi calling for seamless handoffs between LTE and Wifi. However, there will be roaming in more than 100 countries.
 
“Our MVNO partners all share a common denominator: they all target a unique customer set with a specialised value proposition,” said Legere. “But in particular, it’s been a blast working with the team at Google. They are our kind of people. Google shares the same kind of customer-first focus and passion for innovation that we have at T-Mobile.”