Reports indicate that Google has taken definitive steps towards launching their own cellular phone service, making a long-whispered rumor sound like more than just hearsay. Google is working on deals with both Sprint and T-Mobile to become a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) on their infrastructure. While details are sparse for now, this might be your surest bet to avoid bloatware if there ever was one.
An MVNO is a third-party who uses a major carrier's network to provide service. For Sprint and T-Mobile, this is a key revenue source that helps justify their investments in improving their coverage. For consumers, current players like FreedomPop and Virgin Mobile provide additional choice and price competition. While most MVNOs offer non-contract plans, it is not clear at this time whether that would also be true for Google. This could be a venue for them to subsidize the Nexus line.
The report, first published by The Information, mentions that the program has been codenamed "Nova" internally. That sounded familiar to us, because we had been tipped about a similar program called "Nova" last year. We had not been able to get more info and did not report on it - until now.
Our tipster told us that Google Voice (now, that would probably be Hangouts) would be the backbone of the Google plans, which would be data-only. With access to mobile data and possession of a Voice number, the experience would theoretically be nearly equivalent to a conventional phone plus data plan. The tipster also told us that the plans would offer unlimited data, while leaning on WiFi where available.
Neither today's report nor our tip makes it clear what network(s) the plan would utilize. T-Mobile is a GSM carrier while Sprint uses CDMA. For high-speed data, these networks are interoperable provided devices have the right frequency radios. Legacy interoperability (that is, 3G) is dicier.
This isn't the first time you may have heard about Google as an MVNO, either. In April, we reported on a rumor that Google was planning some sort of venture to offer cell service in Google Fiber markets. Today's report is far less modest than just a small rollout, but don't be surprised if it does in fact start on a limited basis like the original rumor.
At this point, Google doesn't have to do much to keep the big carriers on its side. While years ago appeasement was necessary to make sure Android devices were given a fair shake, they now occupy a huge chunk of market share. The benefit that comes with that is things like this; pissing off AT&T and Verizon isn't much of a risk like it once was. Instead, a Google-led cell phone service could drive prices down and give Google control over distribution and software of their (and other OEMs') devices.
For those of you who have been claiming Google would launch their own carrier since the launch of the Nexus One, congratulations! You're sort of, kind of right. They're never going to build out their own towers and the like, but this is almost like being a carrier.
Updated to properly credit The Information with the original report.