Analysts who watch Google and watch the wireless world really, really, really don’t want to think of Google as getting into the wireless biz. This spring, I heard an awful lot of “Google won’t bid” or “Google can’t win” or, my personal favorite, “you think Google is going to bid? Are you on crack?”
As regular readers know, while I have occasionally been a shade grumpy about how Google worshipers have attributed all things in the auction to our Great Google Overlords, I have been surprised at the reluctance of most analysts to accept that Google really does want to win licenses. For example, when Verizon announced it would open its network to third party devices, analysts suggested this would take the pressure off Google to win licenses itself. When Google announced it definitely would participate in the auction, a number of analysts again questioned whether Google was really serious about winning or whether it just wanted to insure the $4.6 billion C Block reserve got met. Although as shown in this article here, some analysts expect Google to press hard to win, the conventional wisdom among analysts has jelled into “Google is only bidding to make sure the C Block conditions stay in place.”
These analysts have sound reasons for thinking Google would be mad to bid. Google never wanted to be a network provider. Sure, they’ve dabbled a bit by investing in broadband over power line (BPL) and dipping a toe in muniwireless (neither of which has amounted to very much). But Google never took the potentially ruinous plunge from being an applications provider (its realm of dominance) to becoming a network provider. Worse, the estimated $5-$6 billion price tag for the C Block licenses is only the beginning of the cost to actually build a network. According to one widely reported estimate by Google itself, it would cost another $12 billion to build the network once Google has the licenses.
Nor is the wireless industry considered ripe for expansion. If anything, analysts expect further consolidation as smaller carriers find it tough sledding against the vertically integrated giants AT&T and Verizon (which jointly control the bulk of residential subscribers, can offer a nice set of wireless and wireline bundles, and enjoy other advantages that make them tough to beat). Even with Google’s genius for creating new capital opportunities, the conventional wisdom goes, how on Earth can Google ever recoup this mammoth investment as yet-another-wireless carrier in the highly-commoditized world of wireless telephony. And the one thing that might have worked, creating its own compelling “walled garden” that encourages users to go with Google wireless to enjoy access to features they routinely access in the wireline world, is the one thing Google has sworn up and down it won’t do. To put icing on the cake, the formation of Android and the inclusion of national carriers T-Mobile and Sprint make it impossible for Google to create its own walled garden if it changes its mind after winning.
With all this to consider, small wonder analysts by and large don’t see much chance of Google making a serious run to win. They believe that Google wants someone else to win, but offer an open network Google can ride on. So while bidding to make sure the spectrum gets bought makes sense, actually wanting to win the licenses doesn’t. Hence the convergence of the conventional wisdom that Google will leave it to Verizon or someone else rather than tie a multi-billion dollar albatros around its neck and potentially crash its stock valuation (especially if you hold Google stock).
For the reasons given below, I will play the contrarian. I think Google will bid and fight hard to win licenses. Indeed, while I expect Google to target C Block, it may well go after D Block or some of the other licenses as well, if that’s what it takes to build a national footprint. Google might still get outb id by Verizon and other carriers, but I don’t think that’s Google’s plan. I think they are in to win.
Why? See below . . . . .