Over on my “Tales of the Sausage Factory” Blog, I just did a rather lengthy piece on why Google really will bid to win a national footprint in the upcoming 700 MHz Auction, despite the
weight of opinion among financial analysts to the contrary. But one aspect of the Google story here bears some expansion.
Unless you own a cat, or have a bizarre interest in parasite-induced behavioral changes, odds are good you never heard of a critter called
toxoplasma gondii (or “T. Gondii” to its friends). This little protozoa lives a complex lifestyle. In its immature phase, it can live in any mammal. But to reach the mature stage and reproduce, it must get into a cat. It does this by the expedient of reversing the usual aversion mice have to cats. A mouse infected by T. Gondii will find the oder of cat a powerful attraction and, on spotting a cat, will rush out to challenge the cat instead of hiding. As a result, the cat eats the mouse and the T. Gondii gets on with its reproductive business.
I find myself regarding this as a very apt analogy for Google and its interest in wireless. Google has no real interest in becoming a network provider. Sure, it has dabbled a bit in broadband over power lines (BPL) and muniwireless, but nothing major. But this summer, Google got told in no uncertain terms that if it wanted access to the wireless world, the only way to get it was to win licenses and set up its own network.
Google, of course, still doesn't want to have to build a network. So it has adopted the strategy of our friend T. Gondii. Modify the behavior of someone else to make your life easier. I don't regard this as “bad” or “freeloading” or “evil” anymore than I regard T. Gondii as evil. A protozoa (or a profit maximizing firm) has to do what a protozoa (or profit maximizing firm) has to do.
And so far, Google is doing an excellent job of getting the wireless mobile mice to start altering their behavior to meet Google's reproductive needs. First, Google has persuaded the weakest national competitors that adopting an open platform will help it compete against Verizon and AT&T. Next, Google threatens to capture major spectrum and set up its own open wireless network. So Verizon, which back in October went so far as to ask a Federal Court to eliminate the
open device condition the FCC placed on the “C Block,” has suddenly decided that it can live with this level of openness for its whole network, not just for any portion of C Block it might capture. Of course, as pointed out by Susan Crawford, Verizon hopes to use this to immunize itself from any further change. But if Google wins its bid, or if a company like Frontline wins spectrum and offers wholesale access to spectrum on a non-discriminatory basis, Verizon and AT&T will find themselves needing to further alter their behavior.
I like to think we consumers play the cat in this whole business. Which brings me to the final point. While I'm happy to have Google induce the wireless companies to open their networks, I am not under the delusion that it does so for my benefit. Like T. Gondii, Google has designs on my devices for its own purposes. As it happens, the benefits at the moment outweigh the potential drawbacks of wireless providers dancing to Google's tune and possibly standardizing on a platform that optimizes Google's business models over something more neutral. But that's why I'd prefer to rely on neutral regulations instead of Google's self-interested efforts to change the behaviors of the mobile mice. Regulation that genuinely serves the public interest would modify the behavior of network operators in ways that serve everyone's interests. By relying on Google to change the market, we necessarily rely on an approach that will put Google's interests first.
But, until Google came along and started using its muscle to get its self-interested way (which happily coincided with my own opinion on the better public policy), the mobile mice ran everything — primarily by inducing elephants to alter their behavior to make a world that benefited mice at the expense of us consumer cats. So speaking as a consumer cat, I'd rather a world where Toxoplasma Googlii manipulates the mobile mice into my waiting jaws — even where it does so just to get better access to my insides — than a world where mobile mice like Verizon and AT&T stampede the GOP elephants (and the occasional donkey) to run right over me. Eating too much T. Googlii may eventually give me indigestion. But that's the risk I'll have to take by relying on “market forces.”