opinion


The hidden world of an internet giant; what has Google ever done for telecoms?

Googlers having fun

Google is one of the worlds’ most recognizable brands. From opening up your Chrome browser, to checking your Gmail account, to getting directions from Google Maps or downloading the latest app from Google Play and watching a cat video on YouTube, Google is everywhere. But these are all internet services; they are all logical to the everyday consumer. How about the ones which aren’t that obvious? What does Google do in the telco arena?

In 2015, Alphabet Inc. was created to act as the parent company for the core Google internet business that we all know and love, as well as to several other projects which were previously owned by Google. The holding company was created to allow the boffins freedom to explore new areas without being restricted by the Google internet business and its stakeholders.

Monty Python with Text

 

“What is Alphabet?” said Larry Page, CEO of Google in a letter explaining the move. “Alphabet is mostly a collection of companies. The largest of which, of course, is Google. This newer Google is a bit slimmed down, with the companies that are pretty far afield of our main Internet products contained in Alphabet instead.

“Fundamentally, we believe this allows us more management scale, as we can run things independently that aren’t very related. Alphabet is about businesses prospering through strong leaders and independence. In general, our model is to have a strong CEO who runs each business, with Sergey and me in service to them as needed.”

So outside the internet business, what does Google actually do? Increasingly it looks to compete directly with telecoms companies.

Google Fiber

Google Fiber was launched as a business unit in 2010, but has become more prominent in recent years. The service was first introduced to the Kansas City metropolitan area, and confirmed as a viable business model on December 12, 2012 when Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Alphabet, said “It’s actually not an experiment, we’re actually running it as a business” at a book signing in New York.

From there the $70-per-month gigabit fiber service was extended to Austin, Texas and Provo, Utah in during the course of 2013 and then onto Atlanta and Nashville. Future expansion could include Charlotte, Raleigh–Durham, Portland, San Jose, Phoenix and San Antonio.

The team has since gone one step further by announcing the launch of a fixed line residential phone offering, Fiber Phone, indicating its ambitions in the telco arena. The service will maintain traditional fixed telephony features, such as call waiting, caller ID and emergency services access, however through the addition of cloud technologies the service will be accessible from almost anywhere, the company claims.

Google Eric Schmidt

Alphabet Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt

“Google Fiber is now in five cities and once you are on it you would never leave, that power, the strength of that platform,” said Schmidt at the company’s annual shareholder meeting. “By the way the cities are Kansas City, Provo, Atlanta, Nashville and Austin. I wished I lived in one of those, that’s how important that is for us.”

Project Fi

The concept of Project Fi could be seen as a bit of a rebellious move from Google. The smartphone is taking over the world, and with it operators are becoming more influential, bundling themselves into new markets. But what about a phone which could exist without an operator – this is the simple idea from Google.

OTT services such as WhatsApp have almost become the norm meaning most smartphones are constantly connected to the internet for these services to work. Whether at home or in the office or in the street, most smartphones are connected to the internet, does this make the role of the operator redundant?

Not quite yet, but Google’s move into the MVNO market could prove to be quite a disruption. The offering has been pitched as a clever piece of engineering. The phone will connect to the strongest wifi signal, unless of course a traditional operator signal is stronger. Partnerships with Sprint, T-Mobile and US Cellular ensure there is adequate coverage, should wifi not be sufficient. Google claims it has covered all bases.

It is a simple idea, but the best ones always are in hindsight. It is also competitively priced with monthly plans starting at $20 per month for unlimited voice and messaging and an additional $10 per GB of data. Unused data is credited $10/GB on the customer’s next invoice.

“Part of Project Fi’s promise is to ensure you have connection when you need it, even in areas with poor speeds or limited coverage,” said Evan Jacobs, Product Manager of Project Fi on the company’s blog. “Your Fi device recognizes when your connection is weak and adjusts in real time. By accessing multiple cellular networks, Fi users have a connection nearly 99% of the time, and spend about 95% of cellular time on LTE — which will improve even further with the addition of US Cellular.”

Sidewalk Labs

The world and cities we live in today has been driven primarily by three major revolutions. Firstly, the Steam Revolution gave us rapid transportation, steamships, and large factories, sparking the industrial revolution. Secondly the Electricity Revolution gave us light, subways, and elevators, and finally, the Automobile Revolution gave us expansionist ideas, moving business out of the city centre. But what is coming next?

Google has seemingly placed its chips on the Digital Revolution as the next revolution for the city, as well as the way we live and interact with each other. Sidewalk is Google’s smart city and urban innovation business, headed up by Daniel Doctoroff, a previous Deputy Mayor of New York and a former CEO of Bloomberg.

The team’s focus to date has been on a number of different projects including LinkNYC, an initiative turning 7,500 old public pay phones into kiosks delivering free gigabit Wi-Fi, video and voice calling across New York, and Flow, a scheme with the U.S. Department of Transportation to assess road data gathered from smartphones to analyse congestion and other traffic conditions. Although estimates do vary, the smart cities market is potentially massive. Markets and Markets research has it at $757.74 billion as soon as 2020, with building technology being one of the fastest growing areas.

“We have a group under Alphabet called Sidewalk Labs and they’ve decided to re-think the way cities work,” said Schmidt. “Now most people live in cities, cities are the engines of growth, there is more productivity in cities, there is lots of crowd, and lots of issues. We think we can apply new technologies of one kind or another in conjunction with and in this case a group called transportation of America, but to do this and in fact there are now best cities initiatives, which we’re competing in.”

Is Google good for the telecoms industry?

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Verily

Verily is another area which has seemingly gained influence following the creation of Alphabet, having been spun out of Google X as its own independent subsidiary. The business is now led by Andrew Conrad, a former geneticist who has recruited a multidisciplinary team of chemists, doctors, engineers, behavioural scientists and data scientists.

Current projects include a contact lens which will allow people with diabetes to check glucose levels in a non-intrusive manner, a spoon for people with tremors, a disease-detecting nanoparticle platform and a health-tracking wristband, as well various ventures into the world of robotics. Proactive healthcare has been seen as one of the poster-boys of IoT, and this hasn’t gone unnoticed by the team at Google.

Self-driving cars

Autonomous vehicles are another area which has attracted a lot of buzz over the course of 2016. However this is one area where Google has received possibly more attention than it would have wanted.

Back in February it was reported one of Google’s self-driving Lexus SUVs drove into the side of a bus at low speed. Google said the car assumed that the bus would yield when it attempted to merge back into traffic, but it didn’t. The incident has mostly been forgotten, but it could have been seen as a slight reality check. Not even Google is perfect.

Google Self Driving CarSince then the team have announced a number of partnerships, including with Fiat Chrysler in May. The partnership, which will see the team work together to build a fleet of 100 self-driving minivans, is the first time Google has worked in a formal relationship with a traditional car manufacturer, though the team have stated since they are looking into additional partnerships.

The technology itself works in a similar manner as a human driver, constantly asking itself questions to come to logical conclusions. The system will ask itself where it is and what is around it, before accessing historical data to predict what might happen and making a decision on what the most suitable course of action would be. The team claim the sensors in the vehicles are designed to detect objects as far as two football fields away in all directions, processing information on all objects detected before making a decision.

“I don’t want to be cruel in the first part of the morning, but I’ll say it as bluntly as I can, there are 32,800 people who are scheduled to die this year on America highways, we just don’t know who,”  said Schmidt. “I’m frankly beside myself over the lack of consensus on how important this problem is. We have activities here I highlighted the testing that we’re doing and we have a number of other companies that are working on this as well.”

Machine Learning & Artificial Intelligence

Machine learning ties into numerous other areas of investment for Google, but it is also a prominent stand-alone technology to itself. Think IBM’s Watson, or Facebook’s bots, or Microsoft’s Cortana, they are all examples of machines learning, admittedly at different levels of advancement, but at the forefront of their organizations technology roadmap.

Google is no different, and has already had a significant win with the AlphaGo deep learning project. Go as a game is immensely complicated, computer scientist Victor Allis estimated a typical game between pros last about 150 moves, with an average of about 250 choices per move. It’s a game based on intuition, emotion and feel, presenting a complicated task for Google’s engineers when creating an AI program top take on the current world champion. But they did it, and they won.

While this is a noteworthy effort from the company, and achieved a fair share of column inches, Google is still playing catch-up with the likes of IBM and AWS. AI has been prioritized by the team, but there is still some work to do before Google could be considered the market leader in the AI world.

“And overall, I do think in the long run, I think we will evolve in computing from a mobile first to an AI first world,” said Google CEO Sundar Pichai during the company’s QI earnings call. “And I do think we are at the forefront of development. So we don’t view it as adapting to it as much as pushing hard and getting there. And so that’s the core of what we do, and we’ll continue to do that.”

Google Project LoonProject Loon

Project Loon could be seen as one of the more ambitious efforts of the business to diversify the outreach of Google, as the team aim to provide internet access in some of the worlds’ most remote areas. Project Loon is a network of balloons traveling on the edge of space which help fill coverage gaps in various places around the world. One use case for the idea has been to get communities back online following a natural disaster.

The balloons themselves sit in the stratosphere and use natural winds to guide the system to where they are needed. Google has then partnered with various telcos who share mobile spectrum, which connects people to the balloon network directly through their phones or other LTE-enabled devices. The technology has been tested in New Zealand, California’s Central Valley and in Northeast Brazil, and there are numerous plans in the pipeline for next steps.

“The Internet is still out of reach for too many people, but we’re making progress,” said Mike Cassidy, Vice President at Project Loon. “If all goes well, soon many more millions of people in Indonesia will be able to bring their ideas, culture and businesses online. At that point, the sky’s the limit.”

So what is Google good at?

When you look at the areas the company is engaged in, you could say quite a lot. Or you could say pretty much any area which involves some level of engineering. In fact the answer is a bit simpler than that. Google as a company is good at taking a risk, but also, and possibly more importantly, they are seemingly unafraid to fail.

A key aim for any company should be to master the fail-fast business model. Start-ups can do it, and this is one of the major reasons they are considered such a threat to the established players in the market. While the fail-fast model is not the only way to innovate, it could be considered the most efficient, and speed is what is driving the digital economy. If you do not create the next big thing fast enough, someone else will.

This could be seen as the rationale behind the formation of Alphabet Inc. The company can invest in areas with the opportunity to fail, without being limited by the burgeoning internet business and its stakeholders. Those who invest in big business don’t like to see failure, irrelevant whether it’s a means to success, but the new corporate structure means those who are being encouraged to be creative are protected.

So what is Google good at? Taking a risk, and making sure there is enough weight behind the risk so it has the chance to succeed.

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