Tuesday, December 6, 2011 at 3:32 am.

Isn’t it ironic: Google Wallet “closed” on the airwaves Google lobbied the FCC to keep “open”

Google WalletAbout four years ago, Google was in activist mode, campaigning the FCC to force our wireless airwaves “open”, serving consumers’ interests above those of wireless operators.

Google called for rules like: “Open applications: Consumers should be able to download and utilize any software applications, content, or services they desire.” It even vowed to bid $4.6 billion in the FCC’s wireless spectrum auction if the rules were passed, which was bold and surprising.

Google succeeded, sort of, when Verizon Wireless ended up buying the big chunk of spectrum governed by a couple of the open access rules that Google lobbied for.

But so much for “open” right now.

Today, Google is keeping one of its most interesting new applications – Google Wallet, for mobile payments — off its best new Android phone. Why? Because its operator partner, Verizon, wants it to.

(Google’s specific statement, when I emailed: “Verizon asked us not to include this functionality in the product.” Verizon didn’t immediately get back to me with an explanation, but it’s easy to speculate that this has something to do with Verizon’s own projects in mobile payments, namely Isis.)

In a twist of irony, or maybe just a coincidence, that new phone — the Galaxy Nexus — runs on the very Verizon network that Google fought to keep open. But now Google is the one helping deny consumers access to a cool new application.

Now, practically speaking, it’s not that big of a deal for Google. It’s just one phone from one carrier, mobile payments are still a messy niche service in their infancy, Google and Verizon can eventually figure something out, or not, etc. Google’s overall relationship with Verizon — as endlessly bizarre as it is — is more important than this one thing.

And, importantly, Verizon isn’t actually blocking the app from being downloaded – it just apparently convinced Google not to make it available in the first place. (I assume that satisfies the FCC’s rules.)

But the spirit of it all — for Google to capitulate to Verizon over an app like that, especially given the history around this specific chunk of airwaves – is disappointing.

Update: A Verizon Wireless rep responds with this delightfully vague message: “We’re working to provide expanded services that will provide the best security and user experience in the market around m-commerce.  We expect to provide access to an open wallet when those goals are achieved.”

I’ve asked for clarification, but this sounds to me like Verizon doesn’t want to support other wallets until its own is ready. I’m not sure how it might integrate that one with Google Wallet, or if it Google would even want to do that, but it sounds like more of a business problem than a technical one.

Update 2: Another statement from Verizon.

As I initially noted, Verizon technically isn’t “blocking” anything from being downloaded or installed — this is a business dispute between partners. (Key term: “Our phones.” There’s your answer.)

And to that point, Verizon says, “We are continuing our commercial discussions with Google on this issue.” Maybe this will be sorted out, maybe not. But Verizon isn’t acting alone here — Google is complying. Because as Google has learned, it needs Verizon to sell its phones.

Also interesting: Verizon apparently sees the NFC chip as a “new, secure and proprietary hardware element” of its devices. Is this a suggestion that future apps seeking access to NFC will also need a commercial relationship with Verizon? Or only wallet apps? Is that acceptable? This is definitely something to explore further.

Here’s the full statement:

Recent reports that Verizon is blocking Google Wallet on our devices are false. Verizon does not block applications.

Google Wallet is different from other widely-available m-commerce services. Google Wallet does not simply access the operating system and basic hardware of our phones like thousands of other applications. Instead, in order to work as architected by Google, Google Wallet needs to be integrated into a new, secure and proprietary hardware element in our phones.

We are continuing our commercial discussions with Google on this issue.

Also: Mobile payments are a mess