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Beyond Google's sweet spot

Nortel Networks' Richard Lowe says Google's Midas touch won't apply to Wi-Fi, a technology that'll yield to 3G cellular.

New advances in technology have flung open the doors to what was once the sacrosanct domain of the cellular operator, and nontraditional providers like Google are making their way inside, hoping for a piece of the action.

Who will emerge victorious in the race for consumer loyalty? Who will be first and best in delivering the next generation of communications--video, games, entertainment and other highly sought-after content?

There are those who believe that Google will be the victor. They see the company, with its huge consumer following and plans to offer free wireless service across the globe, as overtaking the cellular world.

I disagree.

Consumers will gravitate to providers who can address their always-on needs and quality expectations. And I don't think Google has enough depth in that game.

There's no doubt that Google's collaboration with EarthLink on Wi-Fi service for San Francisco is a smart business decision and a natural extension of Google's brand. But like anything free, this new service comes with a catch or two for consumers.

To deliver free service, providers like Google usually partner with advertisers and require users to view their ads. Also, service quality is generally lower and less secure with free Wi-Fi networks. In short, you get what you pay for--average service and the nuisance of combing through ads. I don't know about you, but I fast-forward through ads any chance I get.

Don't get me wrong. Free Wi-Fi is convenient. I often use it myself when I travel. But comparing Wi-Fi to third-generation, or 3G, cellular service is not like comparing apples to apples. This is where Google mania misses the point.

Wi-Fi is great for enterprises and municipal hot spots. It provides the voice and data services we've come to enjoy from our PCs without the pesky wires. But Wi-Fi signals travel only several hundred feet. So unless you have hot spots linked across your city, you will not get a constant connection as you travel. You will also have to sign on each time you change hot spots. And unlike 3G cellular, Wi-Fi is not built for full mobility.

3G is simply a better technology for the mass market. It offers ubiquitous coverage, traditional phone services and advanced Internet Protocol services like instant messaging, picture sharing, mobile video and interactive games. And it does so at greater distances, more securely and with higher quality. Unlike free Wi-Fi, there is no limit to whom or where you can call, e-mail or otherwise communicate with in the cellular world.

I don't know about you, but I fast-forward through ads any chance I get.

Wi-Fi, from traditional carriers or from content providers like Google, is a good complement to--not replacement for--cellular. Wi-Fi simply cannot accommodate growing consumer demand for ubiquitous, immediate device-agnostic content and services delivered in the most simple, entertaining and reliable way.

Consumers will gravitate to providers that can address their always-on needs and quality expectations. And I don't think Google has enough depth in that game. As appealing as "free" might be, it doesn't cut it if we can't get the content and services we want when we want them.

I'm not knocking the success of Google or other Internet content providers, but cellular providers are experts at providing the fundamental pathway for all content: the network. The caretakers of these networks (or so-called dumb pipes) are also the ones that ensure reliability and security.

The current Google Wi-Fi offer has other limitations as well. For one thing, the "free" phone service primarily works for PC-to-PC calls. Call your friend's cell phone or BlackBerry from your Google Wi-Fi connection, and it will cost you.

Another thing to keep in mind is that most PCs were not designed for phone calls. Most PC and laptop speakers, as well as microphones, do not provide the level of voice quality we've come to expect from our phone service. Moreover, laptops aren't the most convenient devices to carry around for making phone calls and connecting to the Web on the go.

3G cellular networks allow people to call any device, any number, from any location. And 3G cellular providers are in an ideal position to capture consumer loyalty and lead us into the next phase of communications because of a new technology called IP Multimedia Subsystem, or IMS.

IMS transforms the Internet from a static document storage and retrieval tool to a more interactive, entertaining and "live" environment with real-time services. IMS will allow people to take their Internet content, communications and applications wherever they go. And there will be no barriers, as they roam across wireless, wireline, cable, DSL and fiber networks.

Google's a strong brand, but I don't believe that it will win this race. A more likely scenario is that Google and other Internet providers will use IMS to work with--not against--cellular providers. Remember that the cellular providers that built the network from the early days, when people used their cellular phone for emergency-only voice calls, are the experts at delivering highly reliable, secure mobile communications.