Even When Google Loses, It Wins

One of the privileges of being a tech darling with a more than $140 billion market capitalization is that you get to throw that weight around and influence the direction of entire industries. Search king Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) has been putting its girth to work lately, and even applied to bid on electromagnetic spectrum in order to wrestle away some control that major carriers have on offering wireless devices and applications.

But now that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has ended the latest U.S. wireless spectrum auction, it's come to light that Google didn't end up winning any bids for spectrum. Once again, Verizon (NYSE: VZ  ) and AT&T (NYSE: T  ) have walked away with the lion's share of the airwaves, bidding about $16 billion combined out of the nearly $20 billion that the U.S. government raked in. But Google still claimed the results as a victory, even though the epitome of "status quo" telecom walked away with the goods.

So is Google really a winner here? Well, it did avoid paying more than $4.6 billion for a block of spectrum that is designated for "open access" -- where users can theoretically activate any device and any software application. At the same time, it succeeded in pushing the FCC and Verizon to adopt open-access policies and commit to supporting third-party devices and applications for its customers.

But while Verizon's vision of open access is still in the formative stages, any voluntary policies will no doubt be set up to favor Verizon -- not outside solutions from providers like Google. And while the top wireless providers service hundreds of millions of U.S. customers, it's likely only a very small percentage will venture into applications that don't have the backing and support of their carrier.

More certain winners from the auction are the government, which is nearly $20 billion richer. Qualcomm (Nasdaq: QCOM  ) and Dish Network (Nasdaq: DISH  ) also walked away with a significant swath of licenses to further their ambitions. And device and infrastructure manufacturers such as Nokia (NYSE: NOK  ) , Alcatel Lucent (NYSE: ALU  ) , and Samsung will also see more sales from expanded networks.

But it'll take more time to tell whether Google won anything other than a pyrrhic victory. Verizon and AT&T will be paying billions to offer lucrative future services, but Google certainly won't get any share of that lunch for free.

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