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Tony Poulos

Is Google Robin Hood, Peter Pan or the Pied Piper?

As featured in DisruptiveViews 

I am not the first, and I will not be the last to wonder what on earth (or in heaven) Google is up to. Of course, as the most valuable company on the planet they have more than enough money to throw at anything they like and see if it works. But sometimes I wonder whether they are like Robin Hood, Peter Pan or the Pied Piper.

On earth, they are rolling out Google Fiber and targeting more and more cities. They are also working with some US cities to provide free Gigabit broadband to residents of affordable housing. This may sound like a Robin Hood gesture (frankly here in rural France I would pay quite a lot for gigabit broadband), but according to some of the comments in one article that ran this story, this makes Google ‘evil.’ Why was not immediately evident.

Meanwhile they are also expanding their MVNO offering, Project Fi, which runs on Sprint and T-Mobile networks. In fact, just today they have taken to their blog with some feedback on Project Fi. They have discovered that their customers like to travel. Sherlock Holmes will not need to be called, that is and was the Unique Selling Proposition (USP) of the service. Their customers also like using Wi-Fi when they can (patience, Mr Holmes). Their customers also like knowing how much data they have used, they like connecting more than one device and they like ringing customer service and speaking to a human being. Inspired insights. They could have just given us a call.

Finally, and here is about the only interesting thing in the post, they are exiting ‘invitation only’ mode. And if you sign up (anywhere in the US) via the Project Fi site in the next month, you can get a Nexus 5X ‘starting at’ $199.

Meanwhile in the heavens, Project Loon, another expensive ‘moonshot’ project is taking to the skies over India, as well as Africa. Teaming up with telcos in the region, they plan to bring low cost, high speed internet to unconnected rural areas.

The irony is that the Fiber project and Loon look like infrastructure moves. And even Project Fi makes the over the top search (and everything else) giant look remarkably like a telco. And close to being a global one, if you knit all three pieces together.

What baffles me is that, even though take up of these services seems slow (Fiber could only boast 53,000 video subscribers as at the end of 2015), they are not doing what they tend to do. In fact, there is a stubbornness in the air. When they launched Google Glass and rude publications like our very own were less than nice about it, they pulled in the horns, went back to the drawing board and quickly realised that it is not (yet) a consumer play. They are relaunching Glass at various verticals where it has immediate and obvious applications, such as healthcare.

Fiber, however, is hitting the barrier that is the Regulator. And AT&T. There is a law that is irritating AT&T hugely at the moment – One Touch Make Ready (OTMR). This essentially means that Google, or anyone else, can get permission to roll out broadband in a city (normally the richer parts of the city) and then use AT&T’s poles to roll it out. Not surprisingly AT&T is not happy and is suing Louisville (in the current case), saying they need to recoup some of their infrastructure investment. There will be a lot of skirmishes in that war (as more cities are announced), and Google has decided to fight dirty by taking to their blog and saying that it is not fair that the residents of Louisville are being denied broadband.

It is not going all Google’s way, though. When they got an agreement in Austin to roll out ‘fiberhoods’ AT&T used that to persuade Austin that they, too, should be able to pick and choose the neighbourhoods they roll out fiber to. Normally a ‘telco’ has to commit to citywide coverage. Austin caved in to AT&T and it is now clear that a piece by piece approach will allow AT&T to fund fiber roll out incrementally. But not all cities are equal and this battle could run for years.

It is strange, though, that Google is now happy to take on the Regulator.

The question is whether they are doing this because they see benefits in connectivity that our industry has missed. We see only revenues being eroded as connectivity and broadband become commodities. Perhaps they see potential we do not.

Project Loon is easier to fathom and is comparable to Facebook initiatives in emerging economies. While India has over 400 million internet users, that is only a third of the population, that is an obvious market for Loon.

And with Project Fi, citizens of the world will, perhaps, be able to use the worldwide Google network wherever they are.

One thought that springs to mind is that during one of the most interesting conference sessions in the last 18 months, one of the major digital service providers, TripAdvisor, said that while he wants to partner with telcos to offer ‘roaming free’ services, he has to deal with so many of them. What he really wished for was one global network, then his life would be so much easier and they could create something amazing.

Well, soon, there could be.

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