Lowenstein's View: 7 things Google could do to make its MVNO really interesting

Mark Lowenstein

Within 24 hours, Google's MVNO announcement at Mobile World Congress turned into a giant MEH. Google SVP of products Sundar Pichai used a prominent speaking slot at MWC to announce the MVNO, and then dampened the enthusiasm by indicating that it would only be available on Google Nexus devices and with a limited rollout. On the one hand, Google wants to shake up the industry, and on the other hand, it doesn't want to bite the operator hands that partially feed it. Another way of looking at this is to call it "Google Wireless Beta"--sort of a Google Labs-ish experiment with a cautious initial launch to get the tweaks out and gauge interest before going big.

First, let me just say that we don't need another MVNO offering a minor variation of the current model. There is a dizzying array of options out there already between four national 4G operators, plus nearly ten substantial MVNOs/sub-brands (Virgin, Boost, Cricket, MetroPCS, StraightTalk, etc.). Pricing is already very competitive and the options for device procurement/ownership/upgrade are mind-numbing. Google's proposition at this point, based on what it has said publicly, looks to me like the Apple TV of MVNOs: a viable entry into a crowded field lacking the compelling value proposition that characterizes so many of its other products.

Here are seven ways that I think Google could make its MVNO better: 

1.     Always Best Connected Wireless. The most exciting aspect of what Google has intimated is the dynamic switching between Wi-Fi and potentially multiple cellular networks, delivering an 'always best connected' scenario. I'd like to see us move away from the 'Wi-Fi' First concept and toward "ABC (Always Best Connected) Wireless." This would involve a more dynamic, and intelligent switching between cellular and Wi-Fi than current services offer, based on more real-time, contextual evaluation of signal strength and network capacity. There could also be user configurations and threshold settings, based on factors such as whether they want to limit cellular data usage, or always be connected to the fastest data network available at that moment (which is cellular, rather than Wi-Fi, more often than you'd think).

I have said this before: the current Cable Wi-Fi experience has actually detracted from my overall cellular and Wi-Fi capability, because in so many cases my device defaults to a poor performing hotspot on the Cable Wi-Fi network, which puts me in this weird purgatory where neither cellular nor Wi-Fi actually works.

Another key aspect of this could be more transparent, user-friendly, real-time network information for the user. Instead of the usual 'bars,' which rarely these days seems to directly correlate to data speed, why not have red-yellow-green to describe what the data experience is at that moment (i.e. red is below 1 MB, yellow 1MB-5MB, green above 5 MB). This could also be interesting information to provide back to the operator, plus some interesting potential analytics tools to correlate data usage with network experience.

2.     Integrate Google Voice and Hangouts More Effectively into the Experience. These services work well on a PC, but are not so elegant on phones and tablets. Google has great standalone products here, but Apple, Facebook, and other OTT apps are upping their game significantly. And if Google is indeed working with select wireless operators on an MVNO, there's an opportunity to incorporate some of their fledgling IP/IMS based services into a killer wireless voice and video offering. Some of the operators in Europe and Asia, for example, have partnered with OTT providers to develop a superior experience than each offers on a standalone basis.

3.    Content Deals. One way Google could make a splash would be to offer some amount of free 4G data to its MVNO customers, say X per month or X per year. They are in a unique position to pull off some sort of sponsored content, tied to apps purchased through Google Play, particular content relationships, and so on.

4.     Zero Out Mobile Video Ads. Google's raison d'etre is to sell advertising. They make 90 percent of their revenue that way. The next frontier in mobile advertising is video, which presents a challenge in a world where users pay for data usage. Google could do two interesting things here: first, only present video ads when the network connection is good; and/or, zero out mobile video ads, so they don't count against users' mobile data usage.

5.     Fix International. If this is going to be a unique software/hardware oriented experience, Google could take a stab at improving the experience for users when calling internationally or when traveling. There has been some headway by operators, but the whole international ball 'o wax can still be confusing and expensive. Plus it's still not easy for the occasional traveler to buy a temporary plan on an as-needed basis.

6.     Build the Platform for the Cable MVNO. Except for Cablevision's Freewheel service (which does not include cellular), the prospect of a Cable Wi-Fi MVNO remains a rumor and not much else. My experience with Cable Wi-Fi alone tells me that there is a LOT of work that needs to be done before cable is able to deliver a compelling, integrated experience. If Google is indeed doing a lot of work on the software/hardware front, could it be the preferred, cloud-based platform for a hybrid Wi-Fi/mobile offering? Google could also incorporate some of the IP developed by companies such as Scratch, Republic (bandwidth.com), and FreedomPop.

7.    Provide a Broadband Option Via Wireless. Google's uber objective is to get broadband connectivity to as many homes and screens as possible. A Google MVNO could offer a creative integrated fixed/mobile broadband service via wireless, targeted at subscribers who are price sensitive, or who don't want to pay $300+/month in combined fixed and mobile bills. This could be a mid-tier average speeds of 5 Mbps mobile and 15-20 Mbps fixed, with a reasonable GB cap, $40-50 per month and options to easily purchase additional buckets of GB. This is the sort of thing mobile operators could do but for many reasons have not yet shown the inkling to. 

Yes, there's awkwardness here in different ways than with the mobile operators…but any Google MVNO is going to have some element of a co-opetition model, no matter who they partner with.  Ultimately, whoever offers an MVNO is going to have to buy wholesale traffic from a mobile operator.

I have focused these suggestions on Google since it has announced intentions for some sort of MVNO. But many of these ideas could apply to other major players who have considered participating more directly in wireless services: Amazon, Apple, Netflix, DISH, cable providers, and so on. Unless these folks do something unique or disruptive, we don't need another MVNO.

Mark Lowenstein, a leading industry analyst, consultant, and commentator, is Managing Director of Mobile Ecosystem.  Click here to subscribe to his free Lens on Wireless monthly newsletter, or follow him on Twitter at @marklowenstein.