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Could Apple become its own cellular carrier?

Dan Moren | May 8, 2015
Google's heading into new territory with Project Fi. Should Apple set up an MVNO too?

Google's announcement earlier this month that it would be launching its own cell phone service wasn't perhaps a total shock--rumors that the company would enter the carrier market have been about for some time, and the Mountain View giant has already made inroads in home broadband with Google Fiber.

But that got me thinking: If Google can roll out its own cellular network, then what's to stop Apple?

The case for
I can think of a few reasons that Apple would be tempted to launch its own mobile virtual network operator (MVNO), but the overriding one is philosophical. Apple's a company that notoriously likes to control everything related to its business. In its earliest days, that meant creating both hardware and software to form an integrated whole, but in recent years, that's increasingly meant the whole shebang. A to Z. Soup to nuts. I mean, this is a company that hired metallurgists for the Apple Watch, invested heavily in a (now mostly defunct) firm to make sapphire glass, and, of course, launched its own hugely successful retail stores in an era when that seemed like pure folly.

Nowadays, the iPhone is the biggest chunk of Apple's business by far, and the carrier experience is in turn the biggest part of that not under Apple's direct control. That experience can also vary widely from carrier to carrier, with features that don't work on one network or another, no doubt providing a level of frustration for a company that is focused on presenting a unified front to its customers.

Controlling the network would open up a lot of possibilities for Apple. They've been down this road before with technologies like iMessage. Sure, the iPhone could receive and send text and multimedia messages before iMessage's launch, but by bringing the feature under its own control, Apple could develop features not supported by SMS: delivery and read receipts, audio messages, and so on. An Apple network could, for example, rely entirely on data, routing voice calls over FaceTime Audio by default. This is the kind of thing that raises the ire of those who believe everything in technology should be an interoperable open standard, but it's also the experience that Apple's customers seek out.

Apple also has the advantage of a limited product line. Google's launching Project Fi with support only for its own Nexus 6, but given the many third-party Android phone makers, it seems likely that will expand. Apple, on the other hand, need only support the iPhone--possibly even just a newer model, if it launched the network alongside a product release. That means it could fine-tune performance and capabilities to the iPhone itself.


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