Why Google Fi might not make it to Canada

*Editor’s note: Story originally published April 24, and is updated as one of our most popular posts of 2015.

Google is poised to release a new phone service that will allow wireless customers in the United States to not only drastically cut their monthly bills but also connect their handsets seamlessly to the best network available (say Wi-Fi hotspot or LTE network) as they go through their day.

Google is rolling out its Project Fi in partnership with U.S. carriers T-Mobile and Sprint. Google’s technology will dynamically switch a user’s connection between available Wi-Fi and T-Mobile’s and Sprint’s respective 3G and LTE networks depending on signal quality in a given area. All this, for a $20/month plan for unlimited nationwide calling, texting, voicemail and call display. Users need to pay $10 per gigabyte of data used but check this out – unused data is credited towards the next month’s bill.

Like most Google projects, Fi is starting as by invitation only. It’s only being offered in the U.S. and it requires a SIM card that only work on Google’s Nexus 6 phone.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have the same service here in Canada?

Yes, but there are some very pretty big hurdles to that according to Emily Taylor, senior analyst for consumer and mobile research at IDC Canada.

“You have to remember that the Canadian mobile market is very different from the one in the U.S.,” she said. “First of all, we have very strong dominant players that Google will need to negotiate with and we have a very different wireless regulatory regime.”

In order for Project Fi to work north of the border, Google would have to get Canada’s Big Three, Rogers, Bell and Telus to agree to, in a way, sharing their respective wireless customers, according to Taylor. There is bound to concerns among the carriers that they might lose some customers to their competition.

“Google will also likely have to compete with the flanker brands like Fido and Koodo. I just see it as being much more complicated for Google here,” the IDC analyst said.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Communications (CRTC) is another factor to consider.

“I don’t think this is something the regulator would go for,” said Taylor. “The CRTC’s approach is towards the development of a strong 4th carrier rather than just reselling the services of incumbents.”

And that is simply what Google is doing with Fi, according to Mark Goldberg, principal of Thornhill, Ont.-based telecommunications consulting firm Mark H. Goldberg & Associates Inc.

“There’s really no new news here,” said Goldberg. “Google is simply reselling Sprint’s and T-Mobile’s services.”

So-called new entrants have been doing the same for years, he said.

Another hurdle for now, the telecom expert said, is that Fi is limited to the Nexus 6 handset. This means that the service will have a very limited customer base.

Fi is very similar to what mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) are offering. The MVNO model allows smaller carriers to use the networks of established mobile wireless carriers for a standard fee. For example, companies that don’t own spectrum can enter the wireless market by buying direct access to the network of a larger carrier at a regulated rate.

The MVNO model is popular in Europe and in the U.S. Some Canadian firms like Primus and President’s Choice have tried it here with mixed results.

An MVNO is “another great way to create competition,” said Josh Tabish, campaigns coordinator for Canadian non-partisan, non-profit advocacy organization OpenMedia, in an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

Taylor is really excited about the technology behind Project Fi but sees little chance of it moving up north for now.

“Imagine having a device that can detect and connect to the best network available as you move from one point to another. It could lead to a lot of interesting possibilities and applications,” she said. “Who knows? Google has always been experimental with their releases.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Nestor E. Arellano
Nestor E. Arellano
Toronto-based journalist specializing in technology and business news. Blogs and tweets on the latest tech trends and gadgets.

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