Why is Google testing a new wireless network? Here are four possibilities

Credit: jurvetson via Flickr

Google may be trying to get into the wireless service business – again.

Washington, D.C., engineer Steve Crowley noticed that Google has applied to the FCC to use Clearwire’s spectrum in Mountain View, Calif., to build an experimental wireless network. The frequencies, in the 2500 MHz band, are ideal for high bandwidth, short range service, and could be used to deliver high-speed internet access to cellphones, tablets, PCs, or other kinds of devices.

Google isn’t commenting on its plans and the application, some of which is redacted, reveals little.

Here are some possibilities:

  • Google is in fact interested in testing out the characteristics of wireless services in the 3550 – 3650 MHz band. The company has been lobbying the FCC to approve the deployment of new services in the band. “It’s possible Google decided it’s easier to do some experimentation at the lower band at this time,” Crowley said. In other words, it might be most convenient to borrow Clearwire’s band – Google used to be an investor in Clearwire – which is close enough to the 3500 MHz band to learn from.
  • Google might be planning to add a wireless component to its fiber network in Kansas City. Since signals sent over higher bands around 2500 MHz travel shorter distances and can handle high bandwidth, operators require a good landline network on the backend. “The more of these [small base stations] you put out, you need a pretty good backhaul network to connect them,” Crowley said.
  • The company might be looking at how a network using those frequencies performs indoors. Google said in its application that it plans to hang base stations indoors and outdoors, so it’s possible the company is looking at how a network using these frequencies performs indoors. Higher frequencies have more trouble traveling from outdoor base stations inside. Google could be hoping to build indoor wireless networks that could improve some of its apps like Maps. It has developed some maps for indoor locations like shopping malls.
  • Google could be specifically targeting the education market. The licenses it is borrowing from Clearwire are part of a band that was initially set aside for educational purposes; Clearwire leases the licenses from Stanford University. Google recently worked with Lenovo on a Chromebook ThinkPad that will be sold only to educational institutes. Maybe the search giant hopes to package devices and services that will only be available to students.

Regardless of the intent, Google’s experiment is quite large, Crowley said. Mobile phone companies often enough will apply for similar types of experimental licenses but typically on a much smaller scale, he said. “This is a pretty ambitious experiment,” he said.

We’re likely to learn a bit more in the coming days or weeks. Google failed to indicate the power level it planned to use. That’s important for licensees of nearby spectrum who are likely to want to be sure that Google’s experiment won’t interfere with their own services. Crowley expects that the FCC will ask Google to provide that information before granting the experimental license.

This won’t be the first time that Google has dabbled in wireless services. Late last year reports surfaced that Google was in talks with Dish Network to build a wireless service. Prior to the auction of 700 MHz spectrum it said it planned to try to win licenses, but ultimately didn’t participate.

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