Reports: Google wants to become MVNO of Sprint, T-Mobile to spur lower prices and better networks

Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) is in discussions with Sprint (NYSE: S) and T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) to launch an MVNO service on their networks aimed at getting wireless carriers to cut prices and improve their service, according to multiple reports.

According to The Information and the Wall Street Journal, which both cited unnamed sources, the development of the service is being led by company veteran Nick Fox, who has been working on the project for more than a year. Indeed, in May 2014 The Information reported that dating back to early 2013 Google had approached both Verizon Wireless (NYSE: VZ) and Sprint about using their networks for the service, which would be a "a full-fledged wireless service" in markets where the search giant offers Google Fiber Internet and TV service.

The Information said inside Google the service is codenamed "Nova," and that it will likely launch this year. Fox had previously looked at launching the service last fall.

T-Mobile referred questions to Google, which declined to comment, according to The Information. A Sprint spokesman also declined to comment.

According to the Journal, Google has negotiated separate deals with Sprint and T-Mobile to resell service on their networks. While the MVNO business model is widely used and commonplace in the wireless industry, and Sprint and T-Mobile have been champions of that model, Sprint is apparently hedging its bet by putting a so-called "volume trigger" into its contract with Google that would allow the deal to be renegotiated if Google's customer base grew too large. It's unclear if T-Mobile has a similar arrangement. Sprint executives are hoping the new wholesale customers they could get from the Google service would outweigh the risks that Google could grow into a real competitor, according to the WSJ.

The entry of Google into the wireless market could present a challenge for carriers at a time of intensifying price competition. At the same time, Google would face high hurdles in moving beyond its core competencies of Internet search and technology. Although the search giant wouldn't have to build or operate a wireless network, it would need to handle customer service inquiries and manage billing for its customers. Google also does not have any retail presence, a key aspect of the wireless market, and would reportedly sell its service and devices online, though it's unclear which, if any, device makers have signed up to support a Google wireless service. Google has discussed both unlimited and pay-as-you-go plans, according to The Information.

"It is hard to say where this will go but we note Google has a history with wireless (note it was one of the original investors in Clearwire--the original 2.5 GHz spectrum play which Sprint now owns) and is clearly the architect of the Android system," Wells Fargo analyst Jennifer Fritzsche wrote in a research note. "There remain many questions as to how this could work and we also note that T and VZ (especially) are large partners with GOOG in the Android effort. So how these relationships could be impacted remains a question. By partnering with these two carriers, Google could be sending a clear message to the two incumbents. The Sprint and Google relationship is especially interesting to us--as once Sprint's network is in a better place (and it is getting there), we believe it will have the fattest 'pipe' in key metro US cities. We believe this spectrum depth (and fat pipe) may be most interesting to Google."

Most MVNOs are small and limited in nature. However, América Móvil's U.S. MVNO TracFone Wireless has grown into the fifth-largest carrier with more than 25 million customers. The Information reported that Google does not have such grand ambitions and that internally the project is viewed as "an experiment." Google is also developing new "communication" apps that are related to the mobile data plans, but it's unclear what that would mean.

Verizon Communications CFO Fran Shammo, speaking on the company's fourth-quarter earnings conference call, said the reports of Google's MVNO plans show "just another very prime example of the intensity and competition around this industry." He said Google's reported plans offer evidence that the wireless industry does not need to be regulated heavily. He also said that MVNOs are complex and that Google would need to deal directly with customers, and that Verizon would view the company as just another competitor.

According to The Information, Google CEO Larry Page has made no secret of his contempt for large wireless and wireline players, which he feels aren't innovating fast enough and provide unnecessary carrier-branded software that competes with Google's own offerings. By entering the wireless market, Google hopes to "get carriers to step up" and improve pricing or networks, one person briefed on the project told The Information, which could help Google indirectly by making Internet service faster and cheaper so Google could sell more ads via search. That thinking is part of the reason why Google has been pressing its own 1 Gbps Google Fiber broadband service.

Separately, Google has been lobbying the FCC to let it and other companies use 3.5 GHz spectrum to provide cheaper wireless service. The Journal reported that those airwaves might eventually factor into Google's wireless plans.

"We are helping to make Internet bandwidth more abundant," Google executives told an FCC commissioner during a September meeting in Mountain View, Calif., according to an FCC filing. "The broadband ecosystem will be well-served by a policy environment that removes barriers to investment, discourages monetization of scarcity, and empowers consumers."

For more:
- see this WSJ article (sub. req.)
- see this the Information article
- see this TechCrunch article

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