AT&T left out of Google party, but not for long

December 5, 2007, 1:41 PM UTC

By Yi-Wyn Yen

Though its peers have rushed headfirst to join Google’s new Android platform, AT&T says it’s in no hurry to back the mobile operating system. But don’t be fooled. Now that Verizon Wireless says it plans to support Android, AT&T will have to jump on the bandwagon too.

“It’s just a matter of time,” says Blair Levin, a telecom analyst with Stifel Nicolaus.

AT&T (T) remains the only major wireless provider to not support Google’s campaign to make carriers more open. Sprint (S) and Deutsche Telekom (DT), the parent company of T-Mobile, joined Google’s Open Handset Alliance last month. Verizon’s (VZ) decision to reverse its anti-Android position comes just a few days after it announced plans to open its mobile network to any and all phones.

“We’re looking at the Android operating system closely, but we don’t have all the facts yet,” says AT&T spokesman Mark Siegel. “If it makes sense to our customers, we would give it serious consideration.” In other words, the No. 1 carrier will join Google (GOOG) when it figures out how to profit from consumers and third-party developers on a platform it doesn’t control.

Analysts say Google’s aggressive push to make wireless networks run like the Internet is already starting to change the retail model and closed environment that wireless networks are accustomed to. Google successfully lobbied the Federal Communications Commission to essentially create an open network for the 700MHz spectrum up for auction in January. Google, AT&T and Verizon all submitted applications by the Monday deadline to bid at the auction.

AT&T can afford to wait on the sidelines and gauge how Android shakes out. After all, it has an exclusive multiyear deal with the iPhone (AAPL), which has made the masses more aware that a handset can be used for other things besides making calls.

The telecom giant though is clearly capable of adapting to a disruptive business model. In 1997, it was the first to package minutes and charge consumers with a flat rate. “Until that time, people were conscious of the per minute rate. AT&T fundamentally changed the ability to package minutes and subscriptions suddenly went through the roof,” Levin says. “What we’re seeing now is a more incremental change. But once you start building an ecology around that idea of a wired Internet phone, networks will begin to open up.”