Wireless Google. Could it be good? Or evil? Is there a difference?

When most people think about Google and wireless, they're probably thinking about how Google is setting up free Wi-Fi networks in cities like San Francisco. As a side note, both eWeek's Ben Charney and News.

When most people think about Google and wireless, they're probably thinking about how Google is setting up free Wi-Fi networks in cities like San Francisco. As a side note, both eWeek's Ben Charney and News.com's Elinor Mills have insinuated (News.comeWeek) that Google's difficulty in getting its WiFi running for yesterday's press day could foreshadow difficulties in running city-wide WiFi.  We won't know how good the network that Google and Earthlink are building in San Francisco will be until it's fully operational.  But rest assured it has absolutely nothing to do with what happened at yesterday's event. 

Google's involvement in city-wide news made a lot of headlines.  But today, there are two stories which may tip more of Google's hand.  The first of these has to do with Google eyeing some of the wireless spectrum that will soon be auctioned off by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).   The second of these is a report that Google and Nokia may be teaming up to offer a WiFi phone. 

Although the two are probably related in some ways, It's one thing to get into some city-wide WiFi stuff.  Very local.  It's a whole 'nother ball-o-wax to have an eye on an upcoming FCC auction of wireless spectrum.  Regarding the spectrum news, if you ask me, News.com's Marguerite Reardon found the potential smoking gun:

The auction, scheduled to begin June 29, will sell off slivers of 90MHz radio spectrum in the 1.7GHz to 2.1GHz bands, which could be used to roll out more third-generation, or 3G, mobile networks or newer, 4G wireless technology that would shuttle voice, data, video and other services at even higher speeds...

...rumored bidders, such as Google, have been mum about their plans. Google co-founder Larry Page said during the company's first-quarter earnings call that Google was looking into new ways to "expand" Internet access possibilities for users. Page didn't confirm the company's plans to bid on new spectrum, but he didn't deny the rumors either. Google CEO Eric Schmidt said at a press event Wednesday that the company would more than likely partner for spectrum. He indicated Google might consider teaming up with a partner to acquire new spectrum, or it might simply partner with a company that already owns spectrum....

...."A lot of the new players looking to get in on these auctions could be motivated by the current legislation and policy coming out of Washington that doesn't seem to favor Net neutrality principals," [Albert Lin, an analyst with American Technology Research] said, referring to proposals that would prohibit network operators from prioritizing Internet content and services on their systems.

Monkeying around with Internet neutrality the way various ISPs and now mobile operators appear to be doing is evil stuff that, left unchecked, could seriously marginalize any company that depends on network traffic freely flow to and from them without getting frisked or bounced because of how it may undermine some ISPs' business models.  Internet titans Google, Yahoo, and Amazon are often mentioned as the sorts of companies that such packet-level patdowns will hurt.  But, it doesn't stop there.  Checking every packet at the door before letting it through is a slippery slope and before you know it, instead of having one big happy Internet, we'll have ten or 100 proprietary networks.  We'll be back to the old days of Prodigy, Compuserve, and America Online where we needed different client software and telephone numbers to get to each of them. 

So, in the big picture, it makes perfect sense for a Net Neutrality sugar daddy like Google to step in and save the day by setting up wireless networks of its own that can do an end run around the network operators that have non-neutrality in mind.  WiFi in cities backed up by the purchase of some new wireless spectrum? It sure feels like Google is playing hardball.  But if Google is indeed pairing up with Nokia for a VoIP phone, then were not talking about any old hardball.  This is what baseball aficionados call a slider.  T-Mobile doesn't want it's customers using VoIP applications like Skype on its network because it turns T-Mobile into nothing more than a dumb TCP/IP pipe provider.  The phone calls slide right by T-Mobile's accounting systems.  So much for all those crazy calling plans.

Dumb pipes are a heavily commoditized business with low profit margins.  Network operators make their real money off of premium services that they can charge extra for.  But if end-users are picking and choosing their own premium applications by loading Skype onto their smartphones, they've not only taken the network operators' premium services out of the equation, they've also taken the network operators' voice services out of the equation too -- practically their reason for being. 

Taken in combination, a Google/Nokia VoIP phone and a nationwide Google network (or Google/Partner X network) sends a pretty clear message that says "If you dinosaurs wanna go mate and die, here something that'll accelerate the process and put you out of your misery."   It would be more nails in the coffin for the entire telecom business.  All of them (the nails, that is) if all the pro-neutrality companies actually got together and joined forces in such a way that their VoIP networks worked together the way the voice networks basically do today.  In this net non-neutrality business, not only do VoIP-providers Microsoft, eBay (Skype), Google, AOL, Vonage, and Yahoo have a common problem, they have a compelling reason to have a common protocol too.

So, for the end user who can finally benefit from dumb pipes, there's a lot of potential good in a pro-neutrality "party" building pro-neutrality networks.  But there's also the opportunity for evil.  For example, now that Microsoft has its sites set squarely on Google, can Google (or Google and Partner X) sit idly by while their wireless network supports whatever Google-killing plan Microsoft has hatched? If I were Google CEO Eric Schmidt, I'd be pretty conflicted about the decision.  I'd also be hating the whole good and evil schtick.  Now that Google is famous for the "do no evil" motto, judging by the headlines over the  last year, everything it does will constantly be judged on a scale with only two possible scores: Good and evil.  Increasingly, Google may be forced to make shrewd business decisions  that will be judged as evil by everybody but Google stakeholders.  From a PR perspective, that's a no win situation.