When Google launched just over 17 years ago, its founders set out to establish a company that would shrug off corporate norms. "Don't be evil," the company's mantra, bespoke a post "business-as-usual" vision, a not-so-distant future built on goodwill, not dollars and cents. But economics is economics, and no matter how well-intentioned, Larry Page and Sergey Brin's brainchild has not only succumbed to the realities of a dog-eat-dog world, in many ways it's become the alpha male.
Case in point is the debate over unlicensed spectrum, which, as much as Google would like to keep it under the radar, has quickly become a point of interest. Spectrum, the airwaves that enable mobile devices, is in short supply. Like a highway, these radio waves will get increasingly congested as mobile data traffic grows (it's expected to increase tenfold between 2014 and 2019). The effect is that data speeds will slow down and service will become less reliable. Some forecast such a scenario is only a few years away on the current trajectory.
While the federal government currently holds about two-thirds of all available spectrum, spectrum that has been made available for consumer use - both unlicensed and licensed - is managed by the Federal Communications Commission. During the most recent auction for licensed, or exclusive use, spectrum, a record-breaking $45 billion was bid. Mobile carriers have - and continue to - heavily invest in licensed spectrum to build and strengthen their networks. But even through such activity, spectrum is difficult to reallocate for commercial wireless use; typically it takes about 13 years.
Unlicensed spectrum, on the other hand--which is the shared mobile space where Wi-Fi, baby monitors, Bluetooth, and a host of other applications operate-- is intended for open use to foster innovation. It can, and should, be considered a space for anyone and everyone.
Google was traditionally an unabashed supporter of innovation in unlicensed spectrum, but as it grew from start-up into the dominant corporate behemoth it is today, its views on unlicensed spectrum also changed. What was good for the start-up is no longer good for the incumbent. To that end Google is up to no good in Washington and is seeking new and unprecedented regulations that would stifle innovation in the mobile space. The technology at issue is LTE-Unlicensed (LTE-U), a next generation network technology that will provide more reliable Internet access to mobile customers and--you guessed it--operates in unlicensed spectrum bands. Because Google has made significant investments in unlicensed technologies it is trying to claim ownership of the public airwaves and keep others out of this space to better its prospects for future profit-rich developments by eliminating competition and new innovations - even if it's at the expense of everyday consumers.
So, Google has taken the notorious "L Route" that gives big business such a sordid reputation: lobby. Partnering with the cable industry and Comcast, the industry's largest Beltway heavyweight, Google is pushing regulators to keep mobile providers from rolling out the new unlicensed technology. Their tactic is pretty straightforward: stir concerns that LTE-U will diminish Wi-Fi service, a popular consumer technology we all enjoy. If only the facts were on their side. Research and testing indicates mobile providers and Wi-Fi can coexist on unlicensed spectrum without negatively impacting each other. In fact, evidence shows that Wi-Fi is better alongside LTE-U than it is alongside Wi-Fi.
This Google-Comcast campaign threatens to set back the mobile Internet experience for many American consumers. Smartphone ownership is at an all-time high, and for many communities--especially minority and low-income demographics--these devices are their sole point of access to the Internet. According to Pew Research Center, twelve percent of African Americans and 13 percent of Latinos are "smartphone dependent," and these same groups are more likely to use their phones for purposes like submitting a job application or managing their health. In other words, smartphones are their major on-ramp to the Internet, and that Internet access is integral to everyday life--it's not merely checking Instagram and Snapchat.
Google doesn't have a sterling record when it comes to diversity, an issue I've written on before, but both it and Comcast have done some good things to help narrow the country's digital divide and are continuing to make efforts to do so--Comcast is even running an entire corporate campaign around the pressing problem of the digital divide. That's why it's especially disheartening to see these industry leaders putting a shortsighted business plan ahead of our communities.
One cannot altogether blame Google for looking out for its bottom line, and thereby its shareholders. That's Business 101. But if the company is going to put profits before the best interest of consumers, it should give up the shtick that it's looking out for the American everyman. Indeed, that may be why Alphabet, Google's parent company, recently dropped the slogan, "Don't be evil."
Jeremy White is a former special assistant for the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and national diversity advocate. He is the head of DiverseTech.