Upcoming Verizon Smart phones

Google's Upcoming Mobile Wave Will Swamp Verizon

Cell CarriersVerizon Wireless has lorded it over the U.S. cell phone industry for years. Its selling point is simple: offer the best network and charge accordingly. But T-Mobile, Sprint, and now Google may be cutting into Verizon's mojo.

Google's new wireless service, supposedly launching today (Update: It's live), has been attracting a lot of attention because it's Google, but it's really just a small part of an ongoing wave. By restricting the service to Nexus 6 phones, Google will make sure it remains a small part.

The wave has been sweeping our Reader's Choice awards for a few years now, as smaller virtual carriers like Republic Wireless, Straight Talk, and Consumer Cellular topped Verizon in satisfaction a few years ago and never looked back. Consumer Cellular is powered by AT&T, but many of the others are powered by T-Mobile and Sprint.

The wave doesn't have a specific focus, other than lowering prices for consumers through new service plans and marketing strategies. Republic uses Wi-Fi to save money. Straight Talk is backed by Wal-Mart, giving it a huge retail presence at no cost to its parent, TracFone. T-Mobile made getting rid of phone subsidies mainstream and used the savings to lower monthly service plan prices. There's a lot of innovation out there.

Verizon still appears to feel comfortable, and it's still attracting plenty of customers—it just reported 565, 000 new postpaid subscribers for this quarter. But I'm reminded there of how BlackBerry was riding high in 2008 and 2009 on its old business model, even though the iPhone was coming up swiftly. T-Mobile is that iPhone. Verizon has been fighting back a little bit, offering an "Edge" phone-leasing plan and some limited low-cost plans. But it certainly has plenty of room to lower prices. "Check out Verizon's 50%+ EBITDA margins, " analyst Walt Piecyk Tweeted yesterday. That means it's making a huge profit.

Verizon Has a Year
The way I see it, Verizon has one more year, maybe two, before at least one of the cheaper carriers achieves effective network parity for enough people that the company's network message stops mattering.

Verizon's traditional strength has been a 30-year-old gift—the low-band, 850MHz spectrum its predecessors got from the government in the 1980s. That's helped it cover broad rural areas and penetrate buildings in ways the mid-band spectrum T-Mobile and Sprint own cannot do. The company reinforced that position with a huge purchase of 700MHz LTE spectrum in 2008, which has similar characteristics. And Verizon builds gorgeous, complete, and seamless networks.

But T-Mobile and Sprint are catching up, and they will bring their wholesale customers like Google, Republic, and Straight Talk with them. T-Mobile is busy laying down 700Mz sites across chunks of the country. Sprint, meanwhile, is partnering with small rural carriers to expand its rural coverage. Yes, Sprint being Sprint, it still hasn't reached the 2014 goal I linked in the last sentence. But it will get there.

Verizon could pivot to focus on non-phone devices like connected home. But AT&T is already doing that, in a big way. The current CEO of AT&T Wireless, in fact, is the guy who built its connected-home-and-devices business. So Verizon will find a tough, entrenched opponent there.

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