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Google is cleverly and stealthily leveraging a Google-friendly-FCC and lax U.S.-Google antitrust enforcement to extend its global Android mobile operating system dominance to increasingly disintermediate and dominate the spectrum administration function embedded in the firmware of smartphones, connected cars, and Internet of Things devices.
Google currently is trying to convince the Google-friendly-FCC to effectively surrender/outsource a key part of the FCC’s core regulatory mission and authority – preventing radio device interference — to Google.
If it can pull off that coup, Google could quickly become the de facto spectrum access administrator of mass market wireless devices globally by leveraging its market power via bundling Google’s spectrum access administration application and software update mechanism into its already dominant Android mobile operating system.
Arguably, the most fundamental and important task of the FCC and other sovereign communications regulators in the Mobile Internet Age is the technical administration of how wireless devices access spectrum/radio frequencies to prevent chaotic interference.
Central to wireless devices working as intended today is that manufacturers in the factory permanently program the device’s firmware to what FCC-authorized frequencies a device’s radio can transmit.
Legally requiring wireless devices to have their embedded radio transmitters tuned only to the radio frequencies they are legally allowed to use, prevents chaotic radio interference and is integral to ensuring that all forms of wireless devices and communications work as designed and expected.
This legal requirement also is foundational to: the property value and utility of auctioned spectrum for exclusive use; the reliability and quality of public safety spectrum for first-responders; the safe functioning of the air traffic control system; among many more critical wireless services vulnerable to unnecessary interference.
The gambit here is Google is cleverly and stealthily lobbying the FCC to surrender on principle its sovereign role of preventing radio interference by controlling what radio frequencies FCC-approved wireless devices can transmit. Google now wants any user to be able to reprogram their wireless devices, like WiFi routers, to potentially transmit radio signals on whatever licensed frequencies they want to use, whether or not they are legally permitted to do so.
Google Vice President Vint Cerf, in an open letter to the FCC said: “we most strenuously advise against prohibiting changes to firmware of devices containing radio components, and furthermore advise against allowing non-updateable devices in the field.”
Translation: Google, which controls the world’s dominant mobile operating system Android, is “most strenuously” urging the FCC to unilaterally and completely deregulate spectrum access administration in wireless devices in a way that would uniquely enrich and empower Google.
Though Mr. Cerf has been a Vice President at Google for over a decade, and though he is a highly visible fixture in Google’s lobbying of the FCC, the U.S. Government, other sovereign regulators, and many international fora, Mr. Cerf signed this particular formal filing to the FCC, only as a “U.S. citizen” and “Co-inventor of the Internet” without disclosing his Google/Android interests.
At a minimum, Mr. Cerf should disclose his Google affiliation in this matter because it may be the culmination of a successful seven-year Open Spectrum lobbying effort by Mr. Cerf for Google.
Google’s policy argument for why the FCC should no longer control what frequencies wireless devices transmit, is ostensibly to promote: user choice, open source software, and small cell mesh networking.
The ostensible purpose of asking the FCC to unilaterally deregulate spectrum access administration is to allow users to improve the security of their WiFi routers.
However, it is especially rich and ironic that Google spotlights improving security as the rationale for justifying their radical change, when Google-Android’s owns a notoriously poor security track record over the last several years.
Only Google Commercially Benefits
It is important to appreciate that only Google is commercially-positioned to monetize and benefit from this radical change in spectrum access administration policy.
First, Google is already an FCC-approved White Spaces Spectrum Access Administrator for unlicensed spectrum.
Second, Android is the globally dominant licensed mobile operating system, which means only Google could globally benefit from being able to globally update this spectrum access software via cloud updates.
Third, Google is the only advertising-funded wireless infrastructure provider that does not need monthly paying subscribers to make free unlicensed spectrum commercially-viable on a global scale.
Fourth, Google dominates the technology of real-time auctioning of search advertising, an essential capability to delivering real-time access to different unlicensed spectrum bands as a spectrum access administrator.
Fifth, Google largely orchestrated the Administration’s Open Spectrum policy change to favor unlicensed spectrum over licensed spectrum.
Sixth, Google has more different business ventures to make money off of this unlicensed open spectrum policy than any other entity: e.g. Project Fi, a unique national wireless MVNO to leverage wifi-mesh networking; Sidewalk Labs a unique focus on bringing WiFi mesh networking to big cities; and Project Loon and Titan drones to deliver global Internet access service – apparently via unlicensed spectrum.
Finally, Google’s principal wireless architect, Preston Marshall, bragged this week about how Google plans to dominate spectrum access administration in the 3.5 MHz spectrum band: “We’ve fundamentally changed the economics of spectrum… We’ve created a whole new sort of gamesmanship. Every year you can rethink your spectrum strategy.”
In sum, don’t be fooled by the technical nature of this issue, this is another big, clever, stealth Google power grab to enable Google to quickly tie/extend its Android OS dominance into another potential foundational must-have application — spectrum access administration.
This Google gambit could threaten wireless broadband providers globally with more interference in their licensed bands, and with anti-competitive price pressure and commoditization from Google regulatorily disintermediating competitive wireless broadband providers from their customers.
In addition to keeping an eye on the DOJ and the FTC to see if they enforce U.S. antitrust law against Google, foreign antitrust authorities now need to also keep an eye on the FCC to see if Google gets the FCC to politically cede part of its core sovereign regulatory power – spectrum access administration – to Google.
Because if it does, it makes foreign antitrust authorities’ enforcement actions against Google-Android’s contractual tying of apps to the Android home screen – much harder to successfully enforce.
Forewarned is forearmed.
Scott Cleland served as Deputy U.S. Coordinator for International Communications & Information Policy in the George H. W. Bush Administration. He is President of Precursor LLC, an emergent enterprise risk consultancy for Fortune 500 companies, some of which are Google competitors, and Chairman of NetCompetition, a pro-competition e-forum supported by broadband interests. He is also author of “Search & Destroy: Why You Can’t Trust Google Inc.” Cleland has testified before both the Senate and House antitrust subcommittees on Google and also before the relevant House oversight subcommittee on Google’s privacy problems.