The big winner from Google Chrome OS: Telcos

The Google OS could boost demand for 3G/4G netbooks

The coming Google Chrome Web-centric operating system could be a big boon for telecom vendors and wireless operators looking for another way to drive demand.

For one, Google Chrome-based netbooks, when they start to ship in the second half of 2010, are likely to come with fast wireless WAN capabilities that top today's standard, Wi-Fi, in ubiquity.

Most netbooks and laptops today come only with Wi-Fi connectivity. That's mostly due to cost. According to Philip Solis, an analyst with ABI Research, a Wi-Fi chip costs $3 to $4 on average, going up to $5 to $7 for Wi-Fi 802.11n chips, which enable real-world speeds of more than 100Mbit/sec.

Meanwhile, mini-cards offering 3G and 4G wireless WAN connectivity add between $50 to $150 to the price of a netbook, according to Solis.

Wireless WAN technologies offer the same range and near-ubiquitous coverage as cell phones. Today, they include 3G technologies such as HSDPA, offered by AT&T Wireless and running between 400Kbit/sec. to 700Kbit/sec. to Verizon Wireless' EVDO, with similar speeds.

With some exceptions, few telcos are offering 3G netbook discount bundles today because they fear they won't make their money back, as consumers will either use Wi-Fi most of the time, or worse, will run local apps without wireless connectivity.

By aiming at "people who spend most of their time on the web," Google Chrome-based netbooks will be much more appealing to customers if they come with 3G or even 4G connectivity, Solis said.

That would be a boon for telecom vendors such as Qualcomm, Taiwan's Foxconn, Ericsson and Nokia, which are all making 3G and 4G wireless chips and mini-cards, Solis said.

4G technologies such as WiMax are being rolled out by Clearwire Corp and Sprint Nextel. WiMax can deliver real-world download speeds of 3Mbit/sec. to 5Mbit/sec. Wireless carriers AT&T and Verizon expect an alternative wireless technology Long Term Evolution (LTE) to rival speeds of WiMax.

It will also provide a powerful incentive to carriers to subsidize 3G and 4G netbooks, said Jack Gold, an independent analyst.

Carriers are poised to roll out 4G networks by the time Chrome netbooks hit the market late next year. Solis cited WiMax rollouts in the U.S. by Sprint, as well as Japan and South Korea. Verizon Wireless is also debuting LTE this year in the U.S. and expects to have it in 25 to 30 cities in the U.S. in 2010.

The other advantage of Chrome from the perspective of carriers and manufacturers is how easy it will be to add wireless WAN connectivity to a Chrome netbook.

"With a netbook, I'm simply adding a 3G/4G hardware module," Gold said, which simply requires the right driver for Chrome and its Linux kernel.

For smartphones running Google's Android OS or Nokia's Symbian, programmers may need to rewrite the OS at a deep level to make 3G or 4G work with every particular phone model, he said.

The net result is manufacturers should be able to bring Chrome netbooks to market in three to six months, compared with the two years typical for a smartphone, Gold said.

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