Apple isn’t content with just selling you their phones—they want to be your carrier, too. Business Insider reported today that Apple is secretly testing a mobile virtual network operator service (MVNO), a “virtual” cell service that switches between cell towers depending on the strongest signal. The company has allegedly been in contact with telecommunications companies for years, and would plan to launch the service in both the United States and Europe.
This would allow Apple sell the whole package, phone and service, rather than having an iPhone be sold in conjunction with a carrier’s plan. While it’s far down the line, at least 5 years away, and might not even come to fruition, Apple’s history shows this has always been in the works. In 2006, the company filed for a MVNO patent, and extended it in 2011 adding the capability to work with all carriers.
The Apple SIM, released in 2014, is a similar concept, but scaled down for limited use on cellular iPads. The Apple SIM is only partnered with EE, GigSky, and T-Mobile right now.
This service has been ruminated about before, and Apple is known for playing hardball with phone companies. (Remember their exclusive Cingular deal for the first iPhone?) However, if Apple is using the cell towers of the companies it’s looking to shirk, the carriers are bargaining from a place of strength.
Apple could be making this move to have more control over the content it sends to iPhones. Apple has already made a deal with T-Mobile so that any data used streaming Apple Music won’t count against the user’s data plan. This is a long-term strategy for T-Mobile, which they call “Music Freedom,” but Apple may want to offer this service for all its listers. There are net neutrality concerns with Music Freedom, however, and any move towards this kind of service be Apple would face the same assertions.
And it wouldn’t be a forward-looking tech story without Google and Facebook. Google, once only concerned with searching the internet, has already launched Project Fi, their Wi-Fi and MVNO service that works with the Nexus 6 phone. Their concept works the same way, switching between T-Mobile, Sprint, or Wi-Fi based on which connection is strongest. They’re also expanding the roots of Google Fiber, their high-speed internet service, and Project Loon for wireless internet around the world.
Facebook should also be considered when looking at the future of communications, as their Internet.org plans get off the ground. Facebook Messenger has integrated voice and video calls into the standalone app, and report 700 million users on their service each month. (However, there aren’t any stats on how many people call through Facebook. I’ve never gotten a Facebook call, and would be weirded out if I did.) Internet.org also gives 1 billion people internet access in 17 countries, according to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, with Facebook as a mainstay of the service.