Google Seeks Patent to Break Mobile Subscriber Shackles

Imagine asking mobile operators to compete in an auction for the chance to offer you service and then switching from one operator to the next multiple times a day to get the best rate or more bandwidth.

Picture doing this without any of the hassles associated today with switching carriers -- no early-termination fees, phone number transfers or new-handset purchases.

Google has sketched a plan for such a system in a patent application. Initially filed in March 2007, the application, which is not available on Google's Patent Search site, was posted on the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office site on Thursday.

The system would require end users to have mobile devices that can operate on different types of networks, including Wi-Fi and the various incompatible cellular technologies, as well as multiple operator networks.

In one scenario described in the application, a user might have a device that is configured to use the least expensive option for connectivity at all times. When at home, the device would attach to the user's Wi-Fi network. Outside, it would switch to the cellular network.

But once outside, the device could periodically search for other available service providers, asking the service providers to bid for the chance to offer service to the customer. The device could automatically switch to the network that has the best price without interrupting a user's voice call or data connection.

On the backend, a program on the phone could contact each of the available networks individually, or the phone could instead communicate with a central server that handles the negotiations with each service provider.

A user could also set different parameters, not just based on price. "In addition to cost as a factor in selecting appropriate telecommunications providers, users may opt for alternative auction models based on maximal bandwidth offered, best coverage/reliability, or some combination of options," the application reads.

Portions of Google's proposal are already available from other providers on the market, but the search giant could have difficulty implementing the broad vision because mobile operators might not see an incentive for joining the program.

T-Mobile currently offers a phone that automatically uses a customer's home Wi-Fi network to carry calls when the user is at home, seamlessly switching calls to the wide area cellular network if the user leaves home while on a call.

But Google argues those kinds of offerings have limitations. "Generally, however, such a system is limited in the services it may provide and the way in which it can provide them. For example, a user may be restricted to a particular plan or particular provider of telecommunication access.... The user may instead be more interested in having access to numerous and superior applications, and may desire the freedom to use a variety of communication modes," the application reads.

If Google were to try to implement such a system, mobile operators might not be interested in joining it. Operators typically try to lock customers into using only their networks, as a way to receive guaranteed regular revenue from customers. Google's plan would make it easy for end users to transfer their calls and revenue stream to other operators that might be able to offer them a better price or service.

Google did not reply to a question about whether it has discussed the idea with mobile operators. It also did not directly answer a question about whether it intends to try to implement such a system. "We file patent applications on a variety of ideas that our employees come up with. Some of those ideas later mature into real products or services, some don't. Prospective product announcements should not necessarily be inferred from our patent applications," the company said in a statement.

Google has increasingly been looking for ways to better participate in the mobile market. Only this week it launched, along with T-Mobile, the first mobile phone running its Android software. Over the last couple of years, the search giant has often complained about the closed environment of the mobile-phone market, where operators dictate which phones users can connect to their networks and which applications can run on the phones. Its patent application would enable an environment where end users have more control, switching from operator to operator at whim depending on a variety of factors.

The system would encourage greater openness in the market, Google argues. "Because the user controls the device, the user receives greater flexibility in deciding what applications they need or want. In addition, such generalizing of the communication channel permits more open development of devices and applications to be run on devices, because the transmissions are standardized, and any device that can format communications according to the standard will work. Thus, for example, such an approach permits more readily for the development of an open-source telephone or other communication device," according to the application.

Google's idea applies the similar auction concept it uses in its ad buying system, Adwords. This is not the first time the company has proposed extending the model to new areas. Last year the company submitted a filing to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission proposing a plan that would let mobile service providers bid real time in an auction for the right to use a piece of spectrum for a given period of time in order to deliver services to phones. The idea would effectively open up a secondary market for spectrum.

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