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Google's plan to become your phone company

Unused spectrum could mean higher data rates and lower bills

Google hopes to become your next cell phone operator by using license-free spectrum to offer cheaper internet access.

The internet giant is readying to take on cell giants AT&T and Verizon with a team of wireless executives focused on gaining access to unused spectra and using new technologies to make fast data sharing possible.

The company has had 10 meetings with the FCC over its proposal and submitted dozens of pages of documentation, according to the Wall Street Journal. Its proposed plan is to create three levels of access to the largely unused 3.5GHz spectrum: first, the government; then companies who would be granted exclusive access; and then the public.

Google is experimenting with unused TV White Space in the UK and it has built a huge database of unused spectrum in both the UK and US.

Currently the 3.5GHz spectrum is not of much interest to cell phone companies because it won't transmit data over long distances. However, as Nominet in the UK recently proved, it can allow for high data rates over small distances - and that is likely to be more than good enough for the majority of people living in cities.

The huge advantage of this spectrum is that it doesn't require licenses - and that would make the process of delivering data significantly cheaper. Under FCC auctions currently taking place between cell phone operators for "advanced wireless services", bids have hit US$44.6bn. All of those sums will eventually find their way back to consumers through their cell phone bills.

Under Google's plan, auctions would only happen if more than one company wanted a specific piece of the spectrum - saving the company tens of billions of dollars and making it an immediate player in the market, especially with its leverage over handsets thanks to the Android operating system.

Google's crack wireless team has technological and political connections to get the plan through. Google Fiber exec Milo Medin moved from his position in September to oversee a new hush-hush wireless project.

Meanwhile, former DARPA and ISI employee Preston Marshall joined Google in April, and former NSF spectrum specialist Andrew Clegg entered the Chocolate Factory this month as Spectrum Engineering Lead.

Clegg was a main panelist at a conference in November 2013 that was hosted by the US government and called "Innovative Spectrum Sharing Technology Day" [PDF slides] where Google outlined its idea. Both he and Marshall have significant expertise as well as connections and credibility with the US government.

In terms of new tech, Google bought wireless startup Alpental Technologies in June. It was experimenting with new devices over different wireless spectra and the company has incorporated its engineer founders into the wireless team.

Taken together, it looks like Google is well positioned to gain access to cheap wireless spectra while also possessing the tools and technologies to make it work and supply a mass market with internet access.

When the average monthly cell phone bill in the US is $73, many with data caps, a far cheaper alternative offering both limitless and faster data would likely prove popular. ®

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