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Comment The debate over net neutrality rumbles on in the US, with Google firing the latest shot, saying it would not hesitate to file anti-trust complaints against broadband ISPs.

If, as seems increasingly likely, Congress fails to pass effective neutrality legislation - which would bar ISPs from charging to carry unaffiliated content or to guarantee service quality - Google would go after the providers itself in the law courts.

Such action would land all players in a murky legal quagmire, but there is one market where this is not an option, and Google is having to fight its corner purely on commercial grounds. This is the cellular world, where mobile operators remain in full control of their networks and what is accessible from them.

For sure, they are being forced by user pressure to open up their walled gardens and allow customers unfettered access to the web, but they are not classed as ISPs and so can take a very different approach - for now at least - even as their networks become increasingly used for internet access.

In this situation, there is actually gain for Google. A cellco has huge power to promote a certain application by including it as standard on a handset, and Google stands to gain a strong headstart in mobile search through such partnerships.

However, despite its own market weight, it faces challenges. Some mobile operators are suspicious of the search giant's moves to support alternative wireless models such as metrozones, and are wary of giving one software house too much power. Others point to the poor quality of the search experience on mobile phones and are taking interest in new mobile-specific developments, such as the open source Apple/Nokia browser, which will incorporate search facilities in future.

Google's competitors are fighting hard for their own place among the large cellcos, with Yahoo! making particularly strong progress. It recently announced a strategic alliance with 3 Group to bring Yahoo!'s range of internet services - including Yahoo! Search, Mobile Web, Messenger, Mail and Go for Mobile - to 3 customers around the world and to co-develop new ones. The first services launch in the UK this summer, followed by European and Asia-Pacific deployments.

Mobile operators know they need to act swiftly on search as users become more interested in using their handsets for open internet access - a trend that could be intensified by the launch of the dotMobi top level domain, which will point to sites that are particularly usable on mobiles.

In the wake of the Yahoo! agreement, Google needs to make additional partnerships of its own, though the nature of its deal with T-Mobile could deter other operators from embracing it, as could fears of their own brand being subsumed by Google's.

Copyright © 2006, Wireless Watch

Wireless Watch is published by Rethink Research, a London-based IT publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter delivers in-depth analysis and market research of mobile and wireless for business. Subscription details are here.

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