Friday, February 1, 2008

The Battle for Broadband Wireless isn't Over but Google has Won the War

One of the more extraordinary gaps in the SIIA Information Industry Summit was the almost complete omission of references to mobile platforms. Given the number of executives who were thumbing through their mobile devices at the conference this was more than a little ironic. But the U.S. Federal Communications Commission's auction for soon-to-be-vacated UHF TV frequencies has changed that doubtlessly for next year's summit event. As noted by Reuters the official winner of the bidding battle for the first key frequencies in this radio spectrum is not known yet, but the winner of the war for what will be done with these frequencies is apparently Google.

The FCC had agreed that if bids for these frequencies exceeded USD 4.6 billion they would require the winning bidder to honor open access to those frequencies by any device. That threshold has been reached now in the bidding process. Presuming that the preferred use of these frequencies would be for mobile broadband Web access, this would mean that anyone could use any mobile platform to access the Web instead of having to be locked into a specific device - such as in the iPhone's apparently ill-fated exclusive deal with AT&T for broadband Web access. With an estimated million-plus iPhones having been "unlocked" by consumers to allow them access to other broadband networks the fruitlessness of trying to lock down platforms to carriers or vice versa for Web access is apparent. Assuming that the auction goes through as designed the days of artificial "walled gardens" of mobile content based on exclusive platform deals is likely to fade away fairly quickly.

Does all this mean that Google is going into the telecommunications business? With enormous nation-wide infrastructure in place it's not impossible that Google could go that route. But the likely scenario from my perspective goes thusly: If Google wins the bid, they buy Verizon or Sprint Nextel, abiding by stipulations that it operates as an independent subsidiary. If Verizon wins, they still go out and buy them or make them an offer that they can't refuse to enable their future plans. In any event, the telco remains independent but has a deal with Google that makes mobile available in much the same way that the Web is made available today.

The same, that is, except for that there will be one particular platform that may be out there to give a new twist to things: Google's. Their Android mobile operating system is apparently headed for hardware under development by Dell, providing a beachhead for unleashing their philosophy of content made accessible to everyone freely - if not always for free. If Google gets clever about how it charges for advertising on Android-equipped phones it's not altogether impossible that today's Web connection charges would go away. The stage would still be open for other mobile devices using different models, but with free Web access via Android-equipped phones they'd be hard-pressed to do so. So long, iPhone/AT&T model.

And, more to the point, so long most of the old telephony model. With services like Skype having developed global free access to telephony-like services - with integrated video and texting to boot - the call is in for hanging up on now-antiquated telephony methods. It is almost beyond imagining in a time in which I can call for minutes on end for free to India or Italy via Skype that I have to pay over USD 50 a month for the honor of trying to figure out whether or not I need to add an area code via my telephone to contact someone in the town next door. Dedicated circuits still have their place, but just as Google showed that "pretty good" search results were enough to revolutionize content monetization so will the "pretty good" Internet telephony that can be delivered via broadband wireless begin to push telephone companies to surrender their woefully inefficient approaches to telephony services.

In doing so Google will have eliminated the one remaining force that could create artificial scarcity restrictions on content distribution. Major media and telephony companies will continue to push in the U.S. for tiered Internet access, but if most content and communications can come in via broadband wireless at a single fee or through an ad-supported feeless model the rationale for tiered access will be hard to justify in the minds of the consumers. This would still leave a lot of room for potential profits for such companies, but perhaps in a different way than they had imagined. Instead of trying to charge boatloads for access to low-tech content sources such as text and low-bandwidth multimedia cable and telephony companies could have a Web tier devoted to products such as high-performance bandwidth for HDTV. As Google figures out how to do these types of new formats more efficiently in an ad-supported bandwidth model the telcos and cable companies would be forced to innovate even more to justfy the value of premium network services based not on artificial scarcity but on highly valuable technologies.

In all of this it's clear that there will continue to be a place at the table for premium content plays in broadband mobile applications: there are some times when a walled garden is actually a pretty nice place to be. But these gardens will be built by the demands of content consumers, not by the fiat of companies wanting to enforce scarcity where it does not need to exist. The world of traditional media outlets wants desperately for this not to happen, but as demonstrated by what consumers wind up doing when they waste time trying to prevent these changes - easily hacked DRM, unlocked iPhones, technology standards that restrict consumer choices rather than increase them - the years of profits gained by resisting appropriate technology innovations rarely outweigh the years of profits gained by embracing them aggressively.

Will all of this come to pass? Probably not - there are so many "moving parts" in the content industry today that Google itself cannot keep up with all of its changing landscape. The changes are likely to come over a decade at least, just as Google's initial rise to power took many hears to accelerate into a quantifiable market force. But with the amount of work that Google has put already into its mobile strategies it may be happening far more quicly than we can imagine. I don't think that I will have a Google-supplied dialtone on my kitchen phone in five years but I think that it's safe to say that by then I will have a hard time remembering when last I picked up my kitchen telephone or paid for a mobile-to-mobile phone call. And, more to the point, I won't be sad that I have to think about it. One can only hope.
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