Google Project Fi, which features one of the company’s most rational names for a project (“Loon” anyone?), is a real thing — or at least as real as any Google experiment can be — and ready to offer millions of Americans cheaper and potentially smarter mobile access plans.
The bare-bones specifics are:
A mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) supported by T-Mobile and Sprint
Support for exactly one smartphone: the phablet-sized Nexus 6
$20 a month service plans
Additional $10 a month per GB of data, with credit for unused data
Cloud-based phone numbers for ubiquitous access to calls and texting
It’s an exciting offer, right? When I look at my own Verizon plan: roughly $47 a month per line, with another $115 for 10GB of shared data per month and no credit for unused data, I get a little itchy. Why am I paying so much?
There are cheaper plans out there and everyone, including Google’s pals Sprint and T-Mobile will almost pay me to switch. But I have new phones on the Verizon line and if I move, I pay. Which got me thinking: What do we really know about Google Project Fi? What will we pay for, what will connectivity really be like, and why is the cloud such a big part of it?
No free rides
Let’s start with the phone. Google project Fi is, for now, only available with Motorola’s powerful Android performer, the Google Nexus 6. At 6.5 ounces and 3.27 inches wide, it’s a beast of a phone, but the performance and screen quality make up for it. Unlocked, it costs $649 ($699 for 64GB), which brings us to the first Google Fi hiccup.
In my Verizon world, we pay $199 for a new iPhone 6 (base storage). Of course, I can only do that because Verizon is hiding the phone’s true cost in my monthly fees, which are locked in for two years. You might think Google Fi isn’t set up for that, since you’re dealing directly with Google, not Motorola or either of the carriers.
However, Google will let you pay for the phone over 24 months and they won’t charge extra fees. Google doesn’t say, but one has to assume that, if you leave Google Project Fi before the end of the two-year payment plan, you’ll have to either pay off the rest of the phone in a lump sum or, perhaps, Google will just keep charging your credit card until the phone is paid off.
The second big question is connectivity. Google Project Fi has a great plan map where you can plug in your zip code and instantly see how much combined T-Mobile and Sprint 2G, 3G and 4G LTE coverage you can get on Google’s plan. In my Northeastern area, I’ll get excellent coverage. It kind of drops out in middle America, though — Montana is almost a total loss. What the map does not show, however, is how much free Wi-Fi you can get.
Google’s Project Fi touts a million free, open Wi-Fi hotspots, but doesn’t say whose they are. Is Google paying, say, Cablevision for access to Optimum Online hotspots? Google’s Project Fi FAQ states, “We use a network quality database to help determine which networks are high quality and reliable.” It’s just not clear where that database is coming from or which hotspot providers it’s including. Perhaps they’re talking about McDonald’s and Starbucks hotspots, both of which are free. On the bright side, Google is promising Wi-Fi security via automatic Virtual Private Network (VPN) connections.
The third big question is the value of Google’s Project Fi cloud services. Putting your phone number in the cloud is not new. Apple does it with iCloud: If you let it, Apple can ring all your devices when a single one is called. Similarly, Apple’s iMessage gives you the same “text from anywhere” Google Project Fi is promising. Samsung SideSync offers similar features.
This is mostly good news, though I hope Google does a better job of managing the message streams. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to text my wife and had iMessage grab it and throw it to her iPad so she misses it on her phone.
I’m not saying Google Project Fi will have this issue, but we just don’t want to take Google’s cloud promises at face value.
The biggest question facing Google Project Fi, though, may be when it will come to more phones. I, for one, have no interest in a giant phablet. I also don’t really want Android.
The problem is that there’s apparently some specialized SIM-level technology that lets the Nexus 6 effortlessly hop from Sprint to T-Mobile to Wi-Fi and back again. If other phones need new hardware to support Project Fi, it could be months or even years before this Google Project spreads beyond a single device.
That’s no way to build out a carrier network.
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