Could you live your mobile life on WiFi? Attempts to ween users off of expensive, subsidized smartphone deals have been more successful this year than every before; word earlier today that Google had acquired a WiFi hotspot company – and which later turned out to be false – was believable in part because the search company is a prime candidate for ousting cellular from the mobile equation. The ICOA deal may be fake, but Google‘s appetite to ditch the traditional carriers and strike out more or less alone isn’t new.
The original Nexus One was the company’s first effort at that, an attempt to bypass the commonplace subsidized phone deals with an unlocked handset, and relegate the carriers themselves to “dumb pipe” status. It proved to be an idea ahead of its time; smartphone-naive shoppers blanched at a $529 sticker price in January 2010, and Google had to satisfy itself with carrier distribution just like everybody else.
Though we’re only two years past that point, the reception to the unlocked Nexus 4 has been considerably warmer. The phone’s $299 off-contract price didn’t hurt – the same, it’s worth noting, as some high-profile phones have launched, complete with a subsidy and two-year agreement – on carriers like Verizon and AT&T – and Google’s apparent inability to keep them in stock suggests that demand is strong.
Along the way we’ve seen a growing play for the connectivity market by Google. The company already has an agreement with Boingo, subsidizing or offering free access in locations across the US, and of course has its Google Fiber network beginning in Kansas City. It’s still early days, mind, though there are plenty of other wireless hotspot providers out there, primarily in cities, transit locations, and venues like restaurants.
The question is one of saturation, then, and comfort levels: at what point does WiFi coverage become pervasive enough to make users confident enough to abandon traditional carriers. Would the knowledge that 80-percent of the places you can usually be found had WiFi internet access – such as for messaging, and browsing, and VoIP – put you at ease for not having an active cellphone plan? For some that figure would need to be much higher – 90-, or 95-percent even – whereas others, making fewer calls perhaps, might be willing to go down to 50- or 60-percent coverage in return for cheaper monthly bills. Cellphone coverage isn’t 100-percent, after all.
One reluctance might well be down to hotspot unfamiliarity: just how much of the time could you be using a WiFi connection rather than your carrier’s data pipe? It’s not a metric that the carriers themselves are keen to share – focused, instead, on maximizing 3G/4G revenues – though Google could handle that transition relatively easily. Google Now already tracks your location (it can count your steps each month, like a fancy pedometer, or tell you the timetables for the nearest public transport); it would be a small matter to put together a monthly summary of the amount of time you’d spent within the wireless range of a WiFi hotspot.
Even if that degree of pervasiveness wasn’t quite enough to tick the comfort box, it could be sufficient to at least break down some of the monthly bill. Splitting off data use to a hotspot, and using the carriers merely for traditional voice calls and text messaging, would certainly trim service fees, as well as ensuring that things like emergency calling is still available. There’s also room for more unusual price plans, such as we’ve seen Google and others negotiate for tablets and Chromebooks: would you pay another, say, $80 on top of your off-contract phone for twelve months of minimal calls and messages – just enough to tide you through those times you were out of range of WiFi?
Breaking free of carriers and their demands isn’t the sole reserve of Google – Steve Jobs wanted to do it with WiFi and the first iPhone, and Microsoft has Skype for Windows Phone 8 – but the search giant may well be in the best position to actually deliver it. That might not be with ICOA, but it would be mighty surprising if Google wasn’t looking for a way to further democratize the mobile data pipe in its favor.