If you thought Google Fiber sounded like a game changer, you may want to keep an eye on this story. According to the Wall Street Journal, which has a history of having well-placed sources, Google has held talks with Dish Network discussing the possibility of partnering on a wireless carrier to compete with AT&T, Verizon, and all the rest. At first, it sounds like a pipe dream. The kind we've been hoping for since the G1. Thing is, this time, it has a shot of not being complete bupkis.
Before we get into why this might be true, though, let's take a look at why it might be false: for starters, according to WSJ's own sources, the talks are not very advanced and "could amount to nothing." Keep in mind companies talk to each other all the time without releasing products. And, even if they do, that doesn't necessarily mean it will be good. Remember the last time that Google and Dish, a long with a host of their buddies, got on stage to announce a revolutionary new product? Yeah, so far it hasn't gone so well. Also, Google isn't the only company Dish is talking to, so let's not get ahead of ourselves.
Update: According to 9to5Google, talks are a little more advanced than the WSJ's source made it sound. According to the site, here's how it might look:
Google plans to make the service data-only with voice and SMS only being used as VoIP services, likely with Google Voice.
It's also said that the service will rollout mid-late 2013. This is all unconfirmed as of yet, but if the source is reliable, then it might be a bit more likely that it will happen than we initially thought. Still, grain of salt and all that. We now return you to your regularly scheduled analysis/speculation.
Well, Let's Get Ahead Of Ourselves A Bit
For starters, whether it's with Google or not, Dish getting involved in the wireless game in some way or another is something that needs to happen. It's going to happen. Why? Because it owns a decent amount of spectrum that is going completely unused. You know how the big carriers talk about a spectrum shortage? Well, as it turns out, there is about 538MHz worth of wireless spectrum that is currently licensed out to U.S. operators. Of that amount, only about 192MHz is actually being used, and of that amount, about 90% is allocated to existing 2G, 3G, or 3.5G networks on the major wireless carriers. (These numbers circa a late 2011 report by Citigroup. They may have changed a bit since then, but the principle stands.)
There is still a huge amount of spectrum that is currently unused, either because companies that own the licenses haven't made plans to rollout networks (as is the case for Dish), or are underfunded like Clearwire (well, prior to the Sprint acquisition which still needs to be finalized) and LightSquared. It's imperative that these companies either build out networks or sell off their holdings. Preferably the former, since none of us are too keen on giving too much wireless power to a single, or even small group of companies.
So, What About Google?
Does it make sense for Dish to partner with the Mountain View company, though? Well, that's where things get a bit more iffy. Google definitely has reason to want to be in the ISP business. In fact, it already is. If you live in Kansas or Missouri, you can already see the benefits of this type of business venture. Also, it's no secret that Google isn't exactly pleased with the model for selling smartphones to consumers these days and knows it can be better. That's half the point of the Nexus program.
Trouble is, as much as Google would like to, it really doesn't have much experience or assets in the wireless ISP business. The company certainly has the engineering brainpower and capital to be a very attractive partner, but if Dish and Google team up, then a substantial network of towers needs to be built from the ground up. That's a long, arduous road in a race that both companies are already severely behind in.
According to Dish Chairman Charlie Ergen, while he's in talks with companies "who would like to be in the industry" but aren't already, it would be easier to partner with a company that already has wireless infrastructure to build off of.
That's all without getting into how this might affect Google's position in the Android world. Carriers are already a very sore spot for the platform. They delay updates, they block certain services, and they ruin brand names. They're also entirely necessary. While the Nexus 4 may be sold out right now, the unlocked Nexus phone line is, historically, not a huge seller. Google may simply not have the market force to start competing with its partners without alienating them at the same time. Granted, this would only affect the U.S., and Android operates in tons of countries worldwide, but it's also Mountain View's home turf.
In short, could it happen? Maybe! Does Google want it to happen? Absolutely. Will it happen? That is not nearly so certain. There is a lot going against this.
On A Scale Of 1-10, How Excited Should I Be?
I'd say a solid 4. Google is the kind of company to shoot for overly ambitious projects, and ever since Larry Page returned to the helm, there's been a solid "Screw it, let's do it ourselves. It will be awesome" mentality. Then again, ambition was never Google's problem. It's feasibility. The company needs to prove it can enter a very capital-intensive field with the gusto to get things done fast, in a competitive way, and without pissing off everyone in the process.
However, regardless of what happens with Google, you should still be a little excited. Dish has plenty of spectrum that simply has to be used, one way or another. Back in May, T-Mobile and MetroPCS separately filed petitions to the FCC, requesting that Dish be forced to give up some of its holdings. Now it's looking more and more like the latter two companies will be one and the same a year from now. Maybe the new mega-T-Mobile would make a good partner for an LTE network?
Either way, the wireless landscape is being shaken up quite a bit. For the last few years, it's been AT&T, Verizon, then everyone else. We would, of course, love to see a Google-branded carrier show up on U.S. soil, but even if we don't, Sprint is being acquired by a Japanese company and hopefully alleviating some of its financial woes, T-Mobile and MetroPCS are joining forces to compete with the larger carriers, and Dish has spectrum to throw at the most eligible suitor in town. Things are going to get interesting over the next few years no matter what happens.