Google Wi-Fi: It's actually all about mobile service

can with Google logo attached to a phone cord
Credit: nonlirk

Is Google pursuing a mobile offering for end users?

The rumors about Google's plan to make it easier for businesses to offer Wi-Fi to customers just got a bit more interesting. Combined with other recent reports, Google actually appears to be heading in one direction -- toward offering mobile services to end users. 

The Information reported earlier this week that Google is planning to offer Wi-Fi equipment to businesses, like restaurants and doctor's offices, at a discount. Google would manage the hotspots as if they were a single network, so that users could log in once with their Google credentials and then automatically connect to any other similar network when in range.

This morning, GigaOm, citing unnamed sources, reported that Google is planning to use gear from Ruckus. The report notes that Ruckus products will make it easy for Google to manage global hotspots as if they were part of one huge network.

What GigaOm doesn't mention is that Ruckus also has been developing products aimed at letting mobile operators offload users onto Wi-Fi networks. That means if you're in an area that has Wi-Fi, your operator would automatically switch you to that network, rather than continue using its overloaded cellular network.

This is where the Google story takes a twist. Just last month The Information reported that Google was hatching plans to start offering mobile services in markets where it has laid fiber. I poo-pooed the idea because Google would have to rent network time from an existing mobile operator making Google as limited as the operators in what it can offer.

However, if Google could figure out a way to seed and control Wi-Fi networks across town, it could easily offload lots of traffic from the cellular network. That would cut costs for Google and give it some leeway to make new kinds of offers, like better prices on data services.

The Google Wi-Fi plan being reported on this week would be a great way for Google to build out a Wi-Fi network quickly. Both reports suggest that businesses interested in Google's Wi-Fi plan would buy their own Wi-Fi hardware, possibly at a discount shouldered by Google, and also pay for backhaul. In return, Google would offer the businesses analytics about their customers.

The mobile industry has been talking about converging Wi-Fi and cellular networks for years. So far, they haven't been particularly successful in doing so. T-Mobile once offered a home hotspot service that would automatically transfer phone calls from your home Wi-Fi network to its cellular network. The service worked decently but was limited to certain handsets. Sprint is offering something similar now.

Also, for now, Ruckus seems primarily focused on offloading data connections to Wi-Fi, not voice. But it's not a far leap to imagine support for voice. Plus, given the evolution of cell networks toward voice over IP, voice handoffs between the networks might get easier in the future.

The combination of recent rumors suggest that it's possible Google could be taking a long term view toward this vision -- one where it offers a mobile service to end users, piggybacking on the cellular networks where necessary but otherwise relying on Wi-Fi that is mostly supported by businesses. Putting together a Wi-Fi network, with help from local businesses, is a first step in that direction. 

For now, the idea is all just rumor and speculation. Both Ruckus and Google declined to comment for this story. But putting the pieces together starts to hint at an interesting picture.

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