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More About Project Fi - What It Is and What it Means

As I reported earlier Google has announced that it will soon enter the prepaid mobile business with an MVNO called Project Fi. What we know about Project Fi can be summarized as:

  • Project Fi is currently invite-only (request an invite) and requires a Nexus 6 phone priced at $649.99 for the 32 GB version and $699.99 for the 64 GB model. Interest free 24 month financing at $27.04/month (32 GB) or $29.12 (64 GB is available to customers with good credit. 
  • Service costs $20/month plus tax for unlimited domestic voice and unlimited domestic and international texting. Cellular data is available in 1 GB increments priced at $10 per GB. If you don't use up all your data Google will give you a credit of approximately 1¢/MB for the unused amount. Taxes and surcharges will be between 10% and 20%.
  • It runs on a "network of networks" consisting of the T-Mobile and Sprint mobile networks plus over a million WiFi hotspots that Google has verified as fast and reliable. There is no charge for calling US and Canadian numbers, texting or using data when connected to WiFi. 
  • Project Fi phones will automatically connect to Google verified WiFi hotspots. WiFi connections will be routed through an encrypted VPN by Google. When moving out of WiFi range the phone will will seamlessly switch to cellular without interrupting ongoing calls.
  • WiFi hotspot tethering is included at no extra cost.
  • On mobile network connections voice calls use traditional cellular voice, not VOIP. 
  • International roaming is available in 120 countries. Data while roaming costs the same $10/GB as data in the US but is throttled to 256 Kbps. Texts are free while roaming internationally and calls are 20¢/minute.
  • Calling and texting using your Project Fi number can be done from any device that supports Google Hangouts and has a data connection. Note that you still need a Nexus 6 be a Project Fi customer.
  • A Project Fi app that lets users change plans, pay their bill and check data usage. 
  • Google will provide 24/7 phone and email support for Project Fi customers.
Google launching a prepaid MVNO is an exciting prospect. But what is Google trying to accomplish with Project Fi? Here's my take what Project Fi means for users and the mobile industry:

What is Google trying to accomplish: I see Project Fi as a Google research project. Google is primarily an online advertising company. Virtually everything it does is designed to further the goal of putting relevant, effective ads in front of every user. The cost and scarcity of mobile data gets in the way of Google's ability to track users and reach them with ads. With Project Fi, Google is learning how it can work with multiple networks to make mobile data fast, ubiquitous and cheap. A secondary goal is to put pressure on mobile operators to make data pricing more affordable and transparent.

Is Project Fi a good deal? Not really for most people. Project Fi is a good for frequent international travelers thanks to low cost international roaming. But for the rest of us, the $650+ for a Nexus 6 cost of entry is steep and unless you really need unlimited talk and messaging, $20/month plus taxes is high just to keep service active. $10/GB is nothing special either as it's pretty much the going rate for mobile data in the US. But this is a research project, not one to take over the mobile business, at least not yet. I think Google is keeping pricing relatively high to keep demand for Project Fi at a manageable level and to placate mobile operators that Google relies on to support Android.

What is innovative about Project Fi? There are two things about Project Fi that I see as shaking up the mobile industry. The first is that with the credit for unused data, Project Fi data isn't $10/GB, it's actually 1¢/MB PayGo data. The $10/GB that the incumbent operators charge is use it or lose it. The operators are counting on you paying for more data than you need to avoid running out of data or being hit with high overage charges. PayGo data is typically priced at 5-10¢/MB, so 1¢/MB is a good deal when you are paying only for what you use. I think Google is also trying you put pressure on the operators to move toward more transparent per unit billing. I'm hoping that at some point Project Fi will introduce data-only plans and/or offer cheaper voice and messaging options for light users. For example, Google could treat unlimited as equivalent to say 5000 minutes and 5000 texts. If you use more than 5000 you wouldn't get charged extra but if you use less you get a credit for the unused portion of 5000/5000.

The other innovative thing about Project Fi is the encrypted WiFi network. There have been other attempts at creating networks of free public hotspots that phones connect to automatically. But the ones I've tried like AT&T's Smart WiFi and Devicescape's DataBooster weren't encrypted and had a tendency to connect to hotspots that were non-functional. If Project Fi's network encrypted of vetted hotspots works well I could see Google turning it into a standalone app providing free reliable data access to all Android users.

Does using only Sprint and T-Mobile as network partners limit Project Fi's usefulness? Yes, T-Mobile and Sprint have limited coverage outside of population centers and major highways. I suspect that Google would have liked to partner with Verizon and AT&T too, but wasn't able to get them on board at a price Google was willing to pay. Also it's not actually just T-Mobile and Sprint, there seems to be some off network roaming. The Project Fi coverage map shows coverage in lots of places where neither T-Mobile or Sprint operates. Here's a map of combined Sprint and T-Mobile coverage that FierceWireless published last year:

And here's the Project Fi map:



Most of those light green areas are 2G roaming coverage in places where neither T-Mobile or Sprint has any network presence. Look at Wyoming, the Dakotas, West Virginia and Maine for example. While 2G is anything to rave about, it's better than nothing and hopefully Google will eventually be able to hook up with AT&T and Verizon to expand high-speed coverage.

Sources: Google Blog, Project Fi FAQ

24 comments:

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  1. Agreed that Fi as it is isn't make it to the big time; BYOP is a necessary condition. With such a complicated network setup (T-mobile + Sprint + WiFi calling), I foresee ongoing discussions in the community about the feasibility of BYOP. Maybe people will start trying to flash international Sprint devices.

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  2. yeah, this is a PROJECT. that's why it's called PROJECT Fi. it's a PROJECT. everyone has been knocking it down and comparing it to other mvnos. however, this is a PROJECT that google wants potential customers to finance, and not give away with cheap plans and cheap phones. google will probably lose money on it. google is not out to wipe out the competition. REPEAT: google is not out to wipe out the competition. because this is a PROJECT. so stick with your current mvno because the excitement is over since there is really not much to look at here.

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  3. you can see how Google Voice (a call forwarding service to mostly cell phones) and Google Hangouts (as a VoIP service) have been leading up to this because you need both to seamlessly work together in combination. not just voip. but also cellular calls. working seamlessly together. somehow. have to wait to see if it really works.

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  4. I'm thinking in later years/Months Data will be ad supported something like TextMe's app allows for free calling via WiFi. You'd watch video ads and listen to ads to get credit one credit/100MB/s or something like that. Watch 10 ads abd get 1GB data. You'd probably have to do this WiFi to earn enough cellular data. I could see 50 ads for 5 GB/Data happen. May be worth it for people in rural areas or who travel to rural area's where cable Internet is questionable.

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  5. Actually, this "revolution" already happened, bear with me, with Freedompop.

    Granted, they are not doing it well with all the customer service problems.

    But then again, gmail for business might as well be customer service less.

    Ironically, Freedompop works best with google hangouts. Very little setup is involved.

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  6. Hi Dennis, intersting write-up. I think your thoughts on Project Fi and encrypted WiFi network is definately innovative and perhaps under appreciated. Any thoughts on TimeWarner Cable and their Public WiFi network? It comes with my broadband service but I haven't tried it enough. I'm on AT&T for my mobile phone and there are probably more WiFi networks I have acces to at no additional cost that I'm not fully taking advantage of. Maybe Google has made this easier to use and without requiring any thought from the users end.

    Can you please source and confirm how you know that on mobile network connections voice calls will use traditional cellular voice, not mobile data and IP calling? That's a major question I have. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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    1. read the FAQ:

      "If I have both Wi-Fi and cell connections, will my call go over Wi-Fi or a cell network?"

      "When both network types are available, Project Fi will route your call over whichever network will provide you with the strongest connection."

      https://fi.google.com/about/faq/

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    2. @anonymous I'm guessing you did not fully understand / appreciate my question. That's not addressing my concern if voice calls are traditional cellular voice or IP voice over the phone's mobile network. At best, that part of FAQ is vague.

      Dennis please clarify when you get a chance. Thanks.

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    3. understood what you were asking. seems obvious to me. whatever data network that is best. hangouts does it all over data anyways whether cellular data or wifi data.

      again the FAQ:

      "What happens if I start a call over Wi-Fi and then lose my Wi-Fi connection?"

      "On your Nexus 6, if you start your call over Wi-Fi and then your connection weakens or drops (such as when you leave your home or office), Project Fi seamlessly transitions your call to a cellular network (if one is available) so you can keep talking."

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    4. @anonymous thanks. You just confirmed you definately don't know what I was referring to. No need to respond further. I'll just cross my fingers and hope Dennis has time to respond. Clearly I'm not referring to IP calls on the mobile data network (I'm talking old fashion GSM / CDMA voice network calls)

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    5. I have not been able to find an official statement by Google that voice calls on cellular connections use traditional circuit-switched voice (or VoLTE if the carrier offers it) rather than VOIP. I came to the conclusion that they do because:
      1. If all calls were VOIP, there would be no reason for Google to charge $20/month for unlimited talk and text without data. Everyone would need data and only data.
      2. Project Fi coverage maps show service in 2G-only areas. VOIP is unusable on 2G and only marginally usable on Sprint 3G.
      3. While VOIP over cellular can work well on good low latency connections it is not considered "carrier grade" and most users who have tried it don't find its call quality and reliability good enough to use as their main voice line. I don't believe Google would jeopardize Project Fi's success with flaky voice service.

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    6. I totally agree with Dennis. I read some articles saying Voice was over Data. And I thought. That can not be true. VOIP Calls are horrible even on a strong Network LTE like ATT. I long gave up on using Google hangouts or others. I don't see google making people pay $20 for VOIP. That's why people comparing this to Freeedompop don't know what they are talking about. Freedompop is VOIP only. ProjectFi is a combination of Google Voice magic with Wifi Calling (like tmobile ones). Plus perfect switching between CDMA network and GSM.

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    7. #2 and #3 are good reasons to deduce that voice calls don't use cellular VoIP. However, I believe freedom pop does #1 on some of its plans.

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    8. #1: Freedom pop is all data and yet has distinct voip minute vs data mb allotments.

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  7. VOIP does not have to be bad, and when it is good it is far better quality than any landline even. I've spoke to people in Europe using Skype and it sounded like they were in the same room with me, and I was on a cell phone in a moderate coverage area.

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  8. good summary article Dennis... the encryption aspect looks interesting... let's hope you're right about the intent to keep interest down to the First Innovators... and there's more to come!
    with hopes that this project causes even more innovation and at least some downward pressure on pricing from the big two carriers.... at least that people see another option....

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  9. move to Google Fi and you lose Google Voice:
    http://www.zdnet.com/article/switching-to-project-fi-youre-hanging-up-on-google-voice/

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    1. are you sure ? Calls to Canada are not free on any carrier except Fi.

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    2. Calls to Canada are no extra cost ("free") on several carriers other than Fi, as Dennis documents very well in this post: http://www.prepaidphonenews.com/2013/01/best-prepaid-mobile-international-voice.html

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    3. The ZDNet article that the OP linked to was based on early and incomplete information.

      Project Fi incorporates most of the features of Google Voice and the Google Voice number that you switched to Project Fi can still be used for messaging and VOIP calling including to Canada with the Hangoits app on non-Fi devices.

      See these Google Help articles for more information:
      Switching from Google Voice to Project Fi - Project Fi Help
      Using Hangouts with Project Fi - Project Fi Help

      This Android Central article contains a good summary of the Project Fi Google Voice issue:
      No, Project Fi will not destroy your Google Voice account | Android Central

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  10. Headline: Google's Project Fi MVNO is not threat to Wi-Fi first players Republic, Scratch, and Freedom Pop -- Source: Fierce Wireless http://www.fiercewireless.com/story/googles-project-fi-mvno-isnt-threat-wi-fi-first-players-republic-scratch-an/2015-05-06

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  11. I am sure verizon and at&t also lack native coverage in many areas. They partner with smaller carriers so that is probably what google has done.

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  12. Very well in depth article. No comments after the May 23rd one? Dennis, what's latest on compatibility factor viz, can non-supported devices jump in? Thanks again for the article.

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    1. Only the Nexus 6, 5X and 6P can be activated on Fi. A user who tried a Fi SIM in an iPhone says it works, but only on T-Mobile. Got an iPhone 6S for development purposes, Fi sim works just fine. : ProjectFi.

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