Unhappy with stagnant innovation, Google will become a cellphone carrier

Google is planning to offer wireless service in the US, executive Sundar Pichai announced at the 2015 Mobile World Congress. Google's wireless service won't go head-to-head with AT&T or Verizon, but it will allow the company to experiment with new features and technologies. 

Mark Lennihan/AP/File
Google is planning to offer wireless phone service in the US, executive Sundar Pichai announced on Monday. Here, a person uses the Google Wallet app on a smartphone at the National Retail Federation in New York.

During a keynote address at the 2015 Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona, Spain, Google executive Sundar Pichai announced that the company is planning to offer wireless phone service in the US.

Google’s entry into the smart phone arena was its Android operating system, and it later got involved with hardware by designing the Nexus line of phones. Now, Mr. Pichai says, Google believes offering its own wireless service will allow it to reach more customers.

Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile don’t have much to worry about for the foreseeable future: Google’s service will be very small in scale at first. Pichai says Google will reveal details about the wireless network in the next several months. But Google’s service will probably be limited to a handful of geographic areas, much like its home fiber Internet service.

“We don’t intend to be a network operator at scale,” Pichai told the crowd at MWC.

The company won’t be building its own cell towers or running its own wires – instead, Google will become what’s called an Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO), which is a company that buys network infrastructure and resells it to consumers at a discounted price. Boost Mobile, Cricket Wireless, and TracFone are MVNOs, and soon Google could be one as well.

Google has spoken with AT&T and Verizon about its plans, Pichai says. He noted that those two carriers, along with Sprint and T-Mobile, are what allow Android phones to connect with online services most of the time, and that Google isn’t looking to alienate other carriers. When asked whether Google was going to exert pressure on other companies to lower the cost of wireless access, Pichai answered only that Google was trying to “show innovations.”

One nifty feature Google is working on is automatic call reconnection. If you or the person on the other end drop a phone call, Google’s network would automatically try to reestablish the connection (assuming one of you hasn’t traveled out of reception range). Pichai didn’t say what other technical innovations Google is working on, but promised that more details would be released in the coming months.

Pichai also mentioned that Google has been working on Android Pay, a mobile payment service that will compete with Apple Pay and the upcoming Samsung Pay service. Android Pay will be a software layer built in to Android that allows services such as Google Wallet to be used more easily. That way, a user can tap their smart phone on a sensor to pay for something, rather than having to pull out and swipe a credit card.

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