Google made some waves when it introduced Project Fi, its own cellular service. Google hasn’t built its own mobile network, and instead, Project Fi is a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO), which uses Sprint and T-Mobile’s networks, plus WiFi connections when they’re available.
While your choices with the service are so far limited to just three Android phones, Motorola’s Nexus 5X and Nexus 6 and Huawei’s Nexus 6P, the experiment has attracted a lot of attention and, in some cases, has even sparked some optimism for what the market could look like in the future. So what’s the verdict on Project Fi among people who have tried out the service so far? We’re just beginning to find out.
Jordan Novet reports for VentureBeat that Project Fi is a “great cell service with one (avoidable) issue.” Novet reports that one of the benefits that’s immediately apparent when signing up for Project Fi is the pricing. You can get started with the service for $20 per month for unlimited calling and texting, and $10 for every gigabyte of data that you want to use each month. Novet pays $80 for a plan with 6GB of data. But where the proposition gets even better is how you get credit back for any data you don’t use. If you go over your allotment, you’ll pay extra based on exactly how much extra data you use.
The upshot is a plan that compares favorably and financially with the plans offered by traditional carriers. That’s in part because of the integral role that Project Fi’s WiFi Assistant feature plays in the economics of the plan. The WiFi Assistant connects your phone to free, high-quality WiFi networks whenever possible in order to prevent unnecessary data consumption.
Best of all, Novet points out, the technology helps stave off overage charges without requiring any “tinkering” on the part of the user — who just gets simple, transparent statements each month, with “a nice, simple chart showing data usage for every day of the month, including tethering.” And Project Fi surprised Novet in that it wasn’t slow, as expected, but was faster than Verizon more than half of the time it was tested.
But Novet’s problem with Project Fi is that when the service routes call over WiFi, the call quality leaves a lot to be desired. Calls were choppy, distorted, or both, and the only fix seemed to be turning off WiFi calling. The Project Fi network seems to be robust enough in metropolitan areas in the United States for users to turn off WiFi calling without risking being unable to make or receive calls. But Novet still thinks that despite its early quirks, Project Fi is “impressively good, given how new it is and the high standards that consumers have when it comes to cell service,” and could turn into something particularly interesting if Google scales up the experiment into something more permanent.
Nicole Lee reports for Engadget that that would be a welcome change, since “if there’s anything that needs disrupting in the US, it’s wireless carriers.” Project Fi is a welcome addition to a wireless landscape that’s required users to tolerate exorbitant prices, hidden fees, and practices like data throttling. Lee tested the service with a Nexus 5X, and determined that if the service were compatible with her iPhone, or even with a wider range of Android phones, she would switch to Google’s service “in a heartbeat.”
The defining benefit of Project Fi for Lee is the service’s ability to default to WiFi instead of using data. “Fi was tailor-made for someone like me. As a homebody, I rarely leave the confines of my house or office, and am almost always within reach of a WiFi network,” she writes. During the two months she spent testing the service, she notes that she “barely touched” her monthly 2GB allotment, frequently received money back from unused data, and found herself paying just over $20 per month, “which is the least I’ve paid for a cell phone service, ever.”
Lee writes that she didn’t encounter frequent or significant disruptions of service while using WiFi instead of data, though she did find that as calls would transition from WiFi to data, the call would go silent for at least a few seconds. And once a call is on either Sprint or T-Mobile’s network, it wouldn’t transition to WiFi. Additionally, while Lee saved money using Project Fi, it might not save everyone money, particularly because there’s no unlimited data option.
Overall, Project Fi seems to be making progress as the experiment that its name implies, while at the same time offering an affordable option for users who don’t mind selecting from a limited range of phones. The service could change not only how carriers price their offerings for consumers, but could also change the way we think about carriers. With Fi, you no longer have to choose a single carrier based on its advertising, and competing wireless networks are treated as a commodity, ones that compete based on coverage and speed instead of marketing tricks.