Why Google should buy Sprint

Poor networks and compromised devices will rule until the mobile industry's leadership changes. Google can be that leader

Google should buy Sprint and lead the drive to making ubiquitous wireless data access available, affordable, and capable. Why Google? Because the major U.S. carriers -- Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile -- certainly won't. They've been promising a mobile data future for more than a decade.

Yet what do we experience? Poor 3G coverage from AT&T, which unfortunately happens to offer the mostly widely used mobile device to access the Web, the iPhone. So AT&T's puny 3G network has to be overwhelmed.

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Verizon Wireless's 3G network can't support simultaneous data and voice usage (an issue with the underlying CDMA2000 technology for which a fix is to be made available to carriers by mid-2010). And how good Verizon's 3G network really is has yet to be tested, given its first real Web-oriented smartphone, the Droid, went on sale only last month. But at least the 3G coverage is wide.

Sprint's 3G network supports the Amazon Kindle and Palm's WebOS-based Pre, but neither has picked up the adoption numbers needed to actually stress the network. And T-Mobile has never really played the 3G game.

So why should Google buy Sprint? And what should Google do with Sprint?

What Sprint brings to Google
Sprint has struggled for many years now, living largely off pay-as-you-go customers. Despite an enthusiastic following, the Palm Pre has not been the hoped-for hit in the business and professional markets. Also, Sprint's resorted to price-cutting to gain customers rather than by offering compelling products and services, so it's vulnerable.

But Sprint does have a nationwide 3G network and may be desperate enough to try something different. AT&T and Verizon are too ensconced in complex marketing plans and pricing schemes designed to force you to overpay to worry about offering value or service. AT&T's recent lawsuit shows just how much of a fantasyland it lives in, and Verizon's mishandled Droid launch offers little hope as well (charging $15 extra per month for business-class Exchange access it doesn't really support on a touchscreen smartphone that isn't gesture-based).

Google insinuated a couple years back that it wanted to bid on new wireless spectrum, though that later appeared to be a way to pressure the feds into reducing some of the control the carriers exert over what runs on those networks. That instinct -- to loosen carrier control -- was right.

Google has the money to make its vision of a cloud-based world of data and services on demand a reality. What it doesn't have is the means to deliver those data and services. Buying Sprint would give it that ability. Yes, I know Google's stockholders would howl, given the high capital investments needed. Too bad -- the investment will pay off handsomely for those can look past a few quarters.

What Google should do with Sprint
With ownership of Sprint in place, Google should rebrand Sprint as something like GWireless, dumping the Sprint name entirely. If it needs to keep selling pay-as-you-go cellular service for the cash flow, it can call that division Sprint -- it would be foolish to confuse that old-fashioned cell phone business with the mobile future. That will make the new world order clear to everyone and tap into the enthusiasm that many people have for Google.

Google should move quickly to shore up the deficits in the CDMA2000 cellular network technology that Sprint uses (such as that lack of simultaneous data and voice usage) and map out a shift to so-called 4G (probably using LTE, though WiMax remains an option) to move us all to the bandwidth experience we'll need when we have realy anytime, anywhere smartphones and laptops using actual services.

Google should also then create or contract out compelling Android smartphones. It'd be foolish to count on old-line companies like Motorola to push the envelope, but it does make sense for Google to encourage Motorola's desire to matter again and to encourage ambitious companies like HTC to start innovating ahead of Apple. Google can show the way and/or establish a minimum baseline that advances the market, not just follows the iPhone.

To start, take the best of the Motorola Droid and the HTC Droid Eris and add the missing business-level security and manageability capabilities -- this would at long last provide a real competitor to the iPhone. As the distinction between consumer and business phones disappears, Google should be thinking instead about professionals' smartphones, able to connect to business networks and services as easily as consumer ones. Delivering anything less than iPhone-class functionality is a waste of time and money.

If I were Google, I'd allow other platforms onto GWireless -- so long as they meet a minimum set of requirements meant to drive advanced mobile services. Of today's devices, none would qualify, though the Palm Pre, HTC Droid Eris, and iPhone come closest. (My "Ultimate mobile deathmatch" shows what gaps they need to fill.) Again, Google should be pushing mobile ahead, not just skating by or staying even as everyone but Apple has done so far.

This dramatic action would give real leadership to the concept of mobile services, providing the catalyst we need to realize the future the iPhone first put in reach and that Google consistently espouses. The carriers have been screwing around for 15 years on this; it's time for someone else to lead. We need smart pipes, not dump pipes -- and smart companies, not dumb ones, to get us there.

Now, I do know that Google is just as much an oligarch as the carriers, Microsoft, Apple, Oracle, Intel, SAP, and all the other high-tech stalwarts. So I don't think for a minute that Google owning a carrier is a good thing for Internet freedom, consumer choice, or any other socially responsible consideration. But I look at the carriers and see really bad oligarchs who are screwing up the development of mobile services, and have concluded that Google would be at least more effective in making good mobile service happen, even though it would be just as anticonsumer as any carrier. For better or worse, telecom is an oligarchy in the U.S. and kept that way through our laws and regulatory agencies.

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This article, "Why Google should buy Sprint," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in mobile computing at InfoWorld.com.

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