By Caroline Gabriel, Research Director, Maravedis-Rethink
Just days after there was considerable excitement over Google’s latest adventure with wireless networks, when it sought an experimental licence for a wireless system at its headquarters in Silicon Valley, its arch-rival Microsoft was also showing its interest in spectrum and future wireless technologies.
These moves are part of a long history of activity by both giants, ranging from supporting research efforts, to investing in actual networks or operators. But from Microsoft’s stakes in the failed LMDS operators of the turn of the century, to Google’s Wi-Fi metrozones, to both companies’ white spaces efforts in recent years, the objectives have been the same – not to become carriers in their own right, as so often chattered about, but to instil confidence in, and encourage adoption of the technologies which would best support their business aims.
In many respects, those aims are the same – to boost the usage of web-enabled devices, and to shift the market from closed carrier walled gardens to open environments where their OSs and services can thrive. Both have spent a decade with at least one common goal, to encourage web usage, increasingly on the move. They share many views on opening up more licence-exempt spectrum (as seen in their championing of Wi-Fi from PCs to metrozones, and their white spaces efforts).
In the early days they were often partners in the bid to bring the internet everywhere, but once Google became a platform provider with Android, they were bound to become rivals too. However, many common behaviors remain, one being to lobby for more spectrum, and even to showcase the technologies this would enable by acquiring airwaves and building networks.
Back around 1999, before the wireless bubble burst, Microsoft invested $1bn apiece in two broadband wireless start-ups, Winstar and Teligent, seeing a chance to take control of booming wireless communications and shift the balance of power from the operator to the device platform provider. That was a financial disaster, as both firms were using proprietary technology and had uncompetitive business models, filing for bankruptcy in 2000. However, the punts established a pattern of behavior for Microsoft and Google – to invest in technologies and spectrum that promised to open up new wireless web capacity, and preferably out of the direct control of the major operators.
A few years later, Microsoft was active in lobbying the FCC to open up the millimeter wave bands for unlicensed use, though the end result may be different to what it envisaged, with the focus on small cell backhaul rather than fast home media connections (though 60GHz WiGig keeps that dream alive). And with Google, it was a significant force in getting the FCC to open up the white spaces in TV spectrum for use by Wi-Fi or similar technologies, on a licence-exempt basis. It has since extended those activities to other markets such as Japan and the UK, encouraging regulators there to accelerate their decisions.
Google, for its part, was disruptive in the run-up to the US’s 700MHz auction, indicating it would bid for the only nationwide licence itself, though in reality this was largely a tactic to pressurise carriers into accepting an FCC plan to mandate open access – a critical Google demand – in that spectrum (which was won by Verizon). Whether open access has really been implemented in a meaningful way is doubtful, but the auction saga revealed Google’s eagerness to shake up the traditional spectrum approach in the US, to support more unlicensed options, open access and interoperability, and eventually an ‘on-demand’ system under which service providers could lease frequencies as they need them to deliver their apps, rather than being tied into long term licences.
Both Google and Microsoft know that regulators and other influencers need to see working technology living up to the theoretical claims for new spectrum and open IP connections. Both were active in creating prototype devices for the white spaces, and Google has constructed or funded several networks over the years to showcase the potential of Wi-Fi and other standards. It has a Wi-Fi metrozone in its own Silicon Valley campus and famously took a stake in Clearwire when that firm, and its WiMAX platform, had the potential to support a disruptive new model, based on wholesaling and open IP devices.
Google’s latest experiment may involve Clearwire too, or at least its spectrum (though it has sold its equity stake in the WiMAX firm). The search giant has asked the FCC for an ‘experimental licence’ to test a wireless network at its Mountain View campus, using spectrum currently leased by Clearwire from several universities. It wants a two-year permit to run an “experimental radio service” in the 2.5GHz and 2.6GHz TDD bands.
This is likely to be another example of the web firm drawing attention to potentially disruptive technologies (not detailed yet) rather than trying to become a carrier, though there is always persistent speculation that it might partner with a spectrum owner to build a wholesale network that could support its capacity on-demand vision and new types of providers and services. In November, Google was said to have held talks on these lines with Dish Network, which aims to build and LTE network in its mobile satellite spectrum plus acquire a stake in Clearwire (or more realistically secure an alliance with Sprint). Google has also invested heavily in dark fiber, which could backhaul a new network, and has built an experimental 1Gbps fiber optic broadband network in Kansas City.
Google’s spectrum and technology efforts have mainly been focused on the US, though FCC decisions in areas like white spaces are very influential on other regions. Microsoft has a more global vision, and has been active in white spaces lobbying and testing in most of the countries where regulators are moving quickly. It is part of a major project focused on Cambridge, UK, for instance, and in rural broadband trials in the country, the first to follow the US into opening up the white spaces. This week it announced the start of similar projects in Kenya.
Also, Microsoft has this month opened a European research center which plans to concentrate on spectral efficiency as a driver for wireless broadband access. The European Spectrum Observatory has been set up in Brussels, Belgium, at Microsoft’s Cloud and Interoperability Centre. The Observatory will provide a common repository for data on spectrum usage to be collected, analyzed, and presented to regulators and other interested parties.
“Wide swathes of spectrum continue to be statically dedicated to a particular use, even if they are not fully utilized,” the company said. “If a more dynamic approach to spectrum management were adopted, spectrum utilization could be vastly increased, thereby alleviating a key bottleneck to wireless broadband access.”
Here, Microsoft is singing from exactly the same hymnbook as Google. The two giants will continue in their quest to open up mobile capacity and to direct the shape of the future web experience. They may clash over services and operating systems, but behind the scenes they will often be working together to break down the traditional carrier norms.