What You Didn’t Know About Google’s New Mobile Service

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Google has said it plans to launch a wireless service that will function as the “Nexus of phone networks,” and we’re starting to get an idea of what its service will look like. As The Verge reported recently, Google’s Sundar Pichai confirmed reports that the company will become a wireless service provider in “the coming months.” Pichai acknowledged that Google is working with patterning networks — rumored to be Sprint and T-Mobile — to come a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO). And even though Pichai said that “[w]e don’t intend to be a carrier at scale,” many have been curious about what exactly Google’s service will offer to users.

Android Police’s Cody Toombs reports that an app designed for Google’s wireless service has turned up in an unofficial Nexus 6 firmware image. If it’s legitimate, the app not only confirms that Google is planning to become an MVNO, but reveals some details about the service plans, billing, and even the name of the service, which is referred to as “Project Fi.” Toombs places his confidence level in the rumor at “6 out of 10″ because the details provided by the leak couldn’t be independently verified. But he reports that “a trusted source has confirmed the relevant files are real, and everything we can discern from an examination aligns with both publicly revealed rumors and private tips we’ve received from reliable sources.”

A firmware image for the Nexus 6 was uploaded to the file hosting site Motofirmware.center and was reportedly reconstructed from an internal build that had originally been distributed to testers. The build number was labeled LVY47H, which Toombs reports indicates that it was built on or after February 16, in the same timeframe as other recent Nexus 6 images.

Where things get interesting is with an app named Tycho.apk, which is signed with a release key that can’t be matched to any other key that Google has used for a publicly-released app. The key is used by the operating system to verify an authentic update before replacing an older version of the app, and Google uses different keys for almost all of its apps.

The Verge’s Vlad Savov points out that the app contains the usual settings and options you’d expect from a wireless carrier’s app, such as features to pay bills, check your data usage, and adjust the details of your plan. But with the app, you can also activate your service with Google, request a new phone number, or switch numbers directly. You’ll also be able to pause or suspend your service, or even close your account. Toombs explains, “Status updates are displayed when things change, including some degree of assistance if there are problems along the way. I’m not sure if any other service provider has ever done quite this much from within an app, but it seems like a nice touch.”

The app also references a separate Project Fi app, and “Project Fi” seems to be Google’s codename for its wireless service. Toombs notes that strings used throughout the app use the name Project Fi “exhaustively” in reference to the app, the service, and even phones used with the service. Toombs posits that the name could be a play on the name of Google’s Fiber Internet service, or simply a reference to Wi-Fi, which Google plans to use whenever possible to keep data costs low. But the name is likely simply a codename, and the service will likely launch with a different name, such as “Google Wireless.”

The leak suggests the service, whatever Google ends up naming it, will offer free calls and texts within the United States while charging users for data on a per-gigabyte basis. Toombs notes, “There are still service plans like any carrier, but when customers don’t utilize the allotment of data they have chosen, they will be credited for the unused amount at the end of the month. In the event that they exceed that amount, they are charged the same flat rate for each additional gigabyte. There appear to be no artificially hiked up overage fees.”

The leak also suggests Google’s service will offer data-only options for at least some devices. T-Mobile and Sprint, the two carriers that were rumored to be Google’s partners in building the service, make appearances in the leaked app, with Verizon and AT&T notably absent. The service will likely let users switch their primary device between phones with the press of a button, enabling them to reroute all of their calls and text messages. A string in the app references the idea of auto-switching — that phones could automatically switch between networks when one has better service than the other — and Toombs thinks it’s a “safe bet” that the feature will be supported.

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