How Long Until Wireless Net Access is Free?

Google (GOOG) has gotten a lot of press lately after it submitted a bid to help provide free wireless “Wi-Fi” Internet access to the city of San Francisco. Rather than debate what Google has in mind as far as its future business model, I’d prefer to think about who gets hurt with such a technological development, so perhaps investors can make some money on the short side of the market.

Personally, I think free wireless access to the Net is inevitable. Maybe it’s courtesy of Google, maybe not, but that’s not the point. Ten or fifteen years ago, computer users would have laughed at the idea of getting high-speed access to the Internet over cable lines or from satellites, as opposed to their traditional phone lines. In the new millennium though, dial-up is dying, broadband has become mainstream, and wireless is getting there.

Online access is a commodity service, so it makes sense that prices are set to come down over time. However, with companies like Google sitting on billions of dollars in cash, they do have the ability to drive that price all the way down to zero. Interestingly, there are still two publicly traded stocks that are pure plays on Internet access; Earthlink (ELNK) and United Online (UNTD).

Much like Blockbuster Video (BBI) and Movie Gallery (MOVI), the core business of these online service providers is faced with falling prices and constant industry change. Given that the potential is there that paying for Net access could become a thing of the past, just like movie rental storefronts, a combined market value north of $2 billion for these ISP companies looks attractive to potential short sellers.