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Connected Androids: Google's mobile network plans

Google's Project Fi will combine an MVNO and WiFi technology to rival existing networks – for people with the right phone.

Google building

Inside the Enterprise: Over the last few months, the UK mobile phone market has entered a period of consolidation.

BT is buying EE and 3 has struck a deal to buy O2 from its parent company, Telefonica. The round of mergers leaves just Vodafone as a free-standing operator, with T-Mobile and Orange already part of EE.

But for consumers, there is still plenty of choice, not least because of MVNOs, or mobile virtual network operators. These are companies that provide mobile services, but without running their own networks. Instead they buy in the technology. Virgin Mobile, Tesco Mobile, Lyca and GiffGaff are a few of the better-known names.

In the US, though, one very large technology player has announced its intention to enter the mobile operator space, and it is also going down a version of the MVNO route.

Arguably, Google could afford to build its own physical cellular network: it is one of the few companies that have deep enough pockets, and the technical know how, to do so. But instead, Google's new Project Fi will be, as the company calls it, a "network of networks." Project Fi will use both 4G, LTE cellular networks, and WiFi hotspots, for coverage.

This might sound rather similar to an MVNO, but there are differences. And if the approach Google's engineers are following were applied to the UK market, it could shake up mobile services here too.

Under conventional MVNO deals, the mobile brand buys its capacity from a single cellular network, and sells that on to customers. Google's Project Fi, though, will pick the best signal from either T-Mobile or Sprint (two of the US' LTE operators).

Interestingly, Google talks of T-Mobile and Sprint as its partners, rather than just suppliers of raw 4G capacity. Using two networks increases the chances of users picking up a strong signal. But this is easier to do in the US, which has national roaming between mobile operators. This was discussed in the UK as a way to deal with patchy mobile overage, but plans were dropped.

The other key part of Project Fi, though, is Wi-Fi. If a local WiFi hotspot has a good enough signal, Fi will use that instead, with Google's software managing the network handover. Subscribers, Google says, should not notice the difference. In fact, the service is primarily based around free WiFi, with 4G filling in the gaps between hotspots. Google will also encrypt all traffic, so there should be little risk of hotspot owners snooping on calls or data.

Unsurprisingly, Google's pricing is disruptive; also unsurprisingly, the service will only work with Android and the firm's Nexus 6 phone, at least to start with. A basic Project Fi plan is $20 (14) a month, and data starts at $10 for 1GB, with rebates for unused data and there are no annual contracts.

The leaders of the UK's newly consolidated mobile operators must be asking whether, if Project Fi comes here, they should fight Google or join with it.

Stephen Pritchard is a contributing editor at IT Pro.

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