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Google's Vision For an Open Wireless World

News analysis: Will mobiles be free to roam wi-fi?

By Marguerite Reardon

Google's vision of tomorrow's wireless network is in stark contrast to how wireless operators do business today, setting the two sides on a possible collision course.

Earlier this week, the search giant filed a patent application with the US Patent Office describing its vision of an open wireless network where smart phones aren't tied to any single mobile phone network. In Google's open wireless world, phones and other wireless devices would search for the strongest, fastest connection at the most competitive price. Essentially, wireless operators' networks would be reduced to "dumb pipes".

The idea is that depending on where a wireless user is at any given time, he could be on any number of networks. For example, if coverage is better from Verizon Wireless at home, a subscriber might connect to that network to make phone calls. But he might use AT&T while at work, where the signal is stronger. Price would also be a factor, and operators would constantly be vying in a sort of auction to provide the most competitive pricing for the call.

Meanwhile, users could also access other free or low-cost networks. So if, for example, someone wanted to surf the web from their phone they could connect via a wi-fi or WiMax network. Or people may even be able to connect to a network that uses yet-to-be available "white space" spectrum.

This notion of a device connecting to any network is quite different from how the wireless industry operates today. When people buy mobile phones today, they're essentially locked to one provider. A particular provider may have roaming agreements with other phone operators but customers have a contract and billing relationship with one operator. And if they decide to switch carriers, they usually have to pay a penalty for breaking a contract, and they must purchase a phone that will work on the new network.

Of course, consumers don't have the same issues in the broadband market, where people can connect to any broadband network using any computer, whether it be a wi-fi, cable or DSL connection.

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