First things first: What is Google planning?
The company hasn't confirmed anything, but reports suggest that Google wants to offer its own brand of cellular service by partnering with Sprint and T-Mobile, the nation's third- and fourth-largest carriers, respectively. This means you'd buy minutes and data from Google, but it would all ride over the other two companies' pipes.
Is this like Google Fiber for cellphones?
Not quite. With Google Fiber, Google is connecting homes to high-speed fiber-optic infrastructure that, in many places, the search giant laid down itself. But in this case, it doesn't appear that Google is building its own cell towers; it would simply resell Sprint and T-Mobile under the Google banner.
Would this shake up the wireless industry?
Google probably hopes so, but unlike the wired broadband industry that Google Fiber has been so successful at disrupting, the wireless industry is actually fairly competitive already. You have four major national carriers that are engaged in a major battle over pricing and customers right now. You also have dozens if not hundreds of smaller carriers who operate on the same basis as Google's rumored plan — paying the national carriers a wholesale rate and then repackaging the service into a different product. These piggyback carriers are called MVNOs, short for mobile virtual network operators.
Why would Google want to become a wireless provider?
If there's one thing driving Google, it's a thirst for your commercial data. Think about all the data generated by your Google searches that gets scooped up and used for advertising. Now think about all the data you generate when you place a phone call: whom you're calling, for how long, what time of day and so on. This information is incredibly personal and can be used to help build a profile of you — which, if you'll recall, is partly why everyone was so outraged when they found out about the National Security Agency's snooping into phone records.
Then there's the business information Google can collect about which data plans people find most attractive and how they use those plans. And naturally, all of Google's handsets would likely run on Android, so there's that software integration. Finally, Google is working on its own, modular smartphone. While that product will debut in Puerto Rico, it will surely make its way to the mainland United States and the rest of the world in due time.
Whoa, so Google would own the phone, the operating system and the carrier it rides on?
Exactly. By running its own MVNO, Google would have created a vertically integrated wireless division to match or even exceed Apple's footprint in the industry. In this future, you could still obviously buy devices and services from more established carriers. But where Apple's control over the iPhone stopped at the wireless carrier, Google would be far more empowered.
How does this affect Google's relationship to the big carriers — and Washington?
For one thing, you might expect Google to start caring more about the issues nearest to the hearts of Verizon and AT&T. For example, a Google-branded MVNO would likely be subject to federal rules governing phone records and how they're protected. Google has already been an outspoken player in the NSA reform debate. But becoming a wireless company may force Google to take some new and interesting positions on policy.