4 reasons I want to try Google’s Project Fi (and one reason I probably won’t)
Maybe it’s because I’m still giddy from the change-high I got from my switch to T-Mobile earlier this year; maybe it’s because I recently confessed to liking the Nexus 6 more than I did a few months ago; or maybe it’s because I’m trying to save money after a lengthy spending spree … but for the past 48 hours I’ve been practically obsessed with the notion of trying out Google’s new wireless service, Project Fi.
We reported on Project Fi, Google’s North American virtual wireless carrier, back in April, and the service has been slowly growing ever since. For now, Project Fi is open only to those who had the foresight to apply early for one of the rare, non-transferable invitations. Not having joined that club when I should have (what am I, some kind of tech reporter?), I’m now forced to watch from the sidelines as one of the most significant disruptors in mobile tech rolls out nationwide. There are four big reasons I’d rather be a Project Fi customer than an observer … but also one big reason I’m glad I’m not. In accordance with the Rules of the Internet, I present these reasons in easily-digestible list form below.
Being part of a disruption is cool
One of the reasons Project Fi got so much early press, despite being announced in the lowest-key manner possible by Google, is how alluring the idea behind it is. Project Fi is Google’s ideal vision for what a wireless operator should be, which is essentially the inverse of the model used by conventional carriers like Verizon Wireless or AT&T.
While its data pricing isn’t too competitive for ultra-heavy users or families, Project Fi is very affordable for an individual with moderate consumption habits. The full range of plans can be found here, but the gist of it is this: you pay $20 per month for unlimited voice calling and SMS, and data is an additional $10 per GB atop that. There’s no overage –you’re just billed an additional $10 for each successive gig you use– and get this: if you don’t use all the data in your plan on a given month, Google credits you the difference on your next billing cycle.
Add in free tethering, free (3G) data roaming in over 120 countries, simplified billing and a no-contract business model – and congratulations, you’ve got my attention. This is the kind of thing we’ve been begging the big players to do for years, but it’s taken Google to make it happen. And speaking of the big players …
It uses truly cutting-edge technology
As you may have guessed, Google didn’t build its own nationwide cellular infrastructure from scratch. Instead, Project Fi leverages the combined power of three existing webs to keep you connected: T-Mobile’s HSPA/LTE network, Sprint’s CDMA/LTE network, and the combined mesh of over one million Google-verified “fast and reliable” WiFi access points across the country. In an arrangement not unlike that of other “mobile virtual network operators” like Boost Mobile or MetroPCS, Google buys access to these networks wholesale, then passes it down to you through its own calling plans.
Unlike other MVNOs, though, which are generally limited to a sole wireless carrier, Project Fi offers three potential connection avenues. When a usable WiFi signal isn’t present, your Fi phone switches to the strongest-available cellular signal (say, Sprint). If you then travel outside Sprint’s coverage area, you’ll be automatically switched to T-Mobile’s network. Find yourself back in a Starbucks again, and you’re shuttled back over to WiFi – where, by the way, your data and voice security are protected by a Google-provided VPN connection so you’re not sharing your comms with all the aspiring authors/hackers in the place.
This is a network-hopping strategy straight out of the sci-fi fever dream of a cellphone super-nerd, and it requires some pretty wild hardware to keep up. Fortunately, Google has just the thing.
I really like the Nexus 6
Anyone who’s read the initial reactions to Project Fi will probably accuse me of putting this data point in the wrong section. “Surely, a portfolio of one compatible smartphone is a con, not a pro,” Hypothetical Harry says. And he’s right; generally speaking, this is a very frustrating restriction.
But, two things. First, as outlined in the above episode of After The Buzz, I’ve really taken a shine to the Nexus 6 in recent months. In fact, the entire reason for my two-day infatuation with Project Fi is because I accidentally stumbled across the Fi website during my Nexus 6 followup research. There, I rediscovered an interesting fact about the Nexus 6 (and this is the second thing): its radio hardware is some of the most adaptable and compatible you can find in a modern smartphone. Restricting Project Fi to the Nexus 6 isn’t (just) a way for Google and Motorola to clear out un-purchased stock from the warehouse; the Nexus 6 is literally one of the only devices capable of network-hopping to the degree necessary for Project Fi to work. To me, that makes it more alluring, not less. And speaking of networks …
My switch to T-Mobile has already set my expectations
Earlier this year in a similar fit of stir-craziness, I decided to make the switch to T-Mobile US from my longtime carrier AT&T – a jump I documented in a three–part series here at Pocketnow. The result: six months later I’m still on T-Mobile and still happier than I expected, particularly in terms of network coverage.
Now, this is no puff piece; there are certainly limitations to T-Mobile’s network and you should read the above-linked articles if you want to know what they are. But by and large, T-Mo’s got me almost totally covered where I live (Greater Boston), work (ditto), and travel to most often (Long Island, NY). And while I haven’t had as positive an experience with Sprint in the same areas, my colleague Jules Wang swears by it. And regardless, it’s nice to know that Yellow would be there to back up Magenta if the latter were down or inferior, and vice versa. I imagine it’s something like the feeling I got a decade ago with the old dual-mode phones that fell back on AMPS analog mode when digital coverage wasn’t available. I really like that added touch of reassurance that if one connection doesn’t work, there are two other possible avenues my phone can use to complete that drunk-dial with just the wrong person at exactly the wrong time.
All that sounds really sweet, right? Welp, there’s one microscopic fracture in this articulation frame that just blows the whole hatch cover for me:
It wipes out Google Voice
Bet you didn’t see that one coming. Of all the various (and valid) reasons to pause when considering Project Fi –privacy issues and Google’s reputation for shuttering promising projects jump to mind– something as banal as Google Voice is my roadblock?
Yep. Because I’ve been using Voice for six years, and it’s woven itself into the fabric of my personal and professional communication habits. I use Google Voice to archive important message exchanges, block callers who’ve discovered my phone number in a carelessly-edited video, and (most importantly) to forward incoming calls and texts to many phones, including devices that can’t run Hangouts.
That’s the crucial bit right there: while Project Fi duplicates many of the archival and forwarding functions present in Google Voice, it also requires that you use the Google Hangouts app on whatever devices you’re managing through Fi. Being forced to use that bloated, laggy mess of an app is bad enough, but it also means I can’t use Fi with a Windows Phone, nor can I use it with an Android phone that’s not running Google Play services (to say nothing of using a BlackBerry, Jolla, or FirefoxOS device). Yeah yeah, laugh it up … but I do use non-mainstream devices from time to time.
I should mention that there’s some disagreement as to the degree to which Project Fi cripples Google Voice. Not disputed, though, is the particularly cruel fact that opting in to Fi hobbles your Google Voice account no matter what, even if you don’t want to port your number from Voice. That, plus the eradication of the forwarding options mentioned above, makes it a nonstarter for me. I need a service that’s as close to platform-agnostic as possible to keep doing my job.
All that aside, I understand that mine is an edge case, and I encourage anyone not similarly constrained to give Project Fi a shot if they’d like to try something new in wireless. If you have an email address ending in “@gmail.com,” you can apply for an invite here. Rest assured, we’ve already requested an invitation from another Google account, and once it arrives, we’ll be happy to give it the full review treatment if you’d like us to (please let us know in the comments if this is something you’re interested in). It’s just a shame that bringing something new and awesome into existence apparently requires Google to kill off something old and awesome in the process.