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Project Fi is an MVNO run by Google which has a few unique properties:

  • It supports multiple carriers, T-Mobile, Sprint, and US Cellular as of July 2016
  • It has a very straightforward and transparent billing system
  • It is only available on select devices

I switched to Fi from a Verizon MiFi device late in 2015. So far I'm happy with the service, but not for the reasons you may think.

Pricing

Fi's pricing structure is simple. But expensive. Primary carriers charge their competition (like Fi) a fortune for data, and Fi users need to foot the bill. It's $20/month for a phone and $10/GB for data. How does this stack up against the major carriers? Based on a quick website survey in July 2016 I found the following to be true:

  • Verizon's 1GB plan is largely the same price as Fi at $30. Larger plans are cheaper.
  • Fi doesn't compete with any of AT&T's plans, their 300MB plan is $20 which is the buy-in for Fi. The 2GB plan is $30 which would run $40 on Fi.
  • Sprint is in the same boat, 1GB for $20 and 3GB for $30 both beat $30 and $50, respectively.
  • T-Mobile's 2GB plan weighs in as one of the most expensive at $50 compared to Fi's $40, but 6GB is only $65 compared to Fi's $80.

So how can Fi compete? For one, there are no overage fees. T-Mobile is a bit nicer here in that they seem to just throttle, and Verizon's $10/GB fee is on par with Fi's bill. But Sprint and AT&T both charge $15/GB overage (and AT&T charges a whopping $67/GB on their little 300MB plan). The major carriers want you to over-buy data, pay for 3GB and use 2GB so you don't pay the overage. Fi charges you for what you use, down to the penny so if you use 1.4GB you pay $14 for data. It's ambiguous whether the major carriers will round up to the nearest GB (because I'm too lazy to read the ToS for all of them) so it's quite possible that a few MB over your limit could cost you the full $15.

For some people this is enough, but for me scrimping on data to save a few dollars one month and spend a few more the next is a fool's quest. I'd rather spend $45/month on Verizon than $40-50 on Fi. So why am I here? I have 8 devices.

Data Only SIMs

This is the trigger for me. Let's fast forward a few years when the whole CDMA/TDMA/GSM network is a thing of the past and we're all just SIM-swappable LTE. 8 devices on Verizon would cost me at least $80/month, and that's assuming I can get the $10/month charge for my MiFi (which should be $20 but is completely paid off) and some of my secondary phones (which was $40 last I checked). Even if I strip down the devices I am unlikely to leave the house with at the same time I'd want a SIM for my daughter's phone and my wife's, turning my $45/month plan into at least a $65/month plan and making Fi a more clear winner.

Fi offers data-only SIMs with no monthly fee, the data usage just gets tied back to your account. Don't let the compatible device list fool you, I've yet to encounter a device that doesn't work with them (although they do exist). They actually encourage you to order a SIM and try it out, you may be stuck with Internet support for activation but that's often faster and easier than calling a number anyway. Remember that it's data-only, you can still make and receive calls and texts with the Hangouts Dialer but it may not be the same quality or reliability as traditional voice calls.

International Travel

This is another unsung feature of Fi. When roaming on Verizon you can buy a plan for $25/month that gives you 100MB of data and a $250/GB overage. And that assumes you have a GSM-capable device. AT&T offers $40, $60, and $120 plans offering 200/300/800MB of data with $250/$200/$150 per GB overages. Sprint seems much more reasonable by giving you 1GB free and $30/GB after that with their Open World plan, again assuming GSM-enabled devices. T-Mobile has Simple Choice plans with international travel included, but pray you don't need to spend the pants-soiling $15,000/GB on the legacy plans.

For Fi, it's the same $10/GB no matter where you are. Sometimes you get full LTE support, sometimes you drop down to 3G or even 2G speeds. But all the time you know what you're paying for data. And, of course, there's always WiFi. Simplified International billing is a big plus for me, one less thing I need to worry about.

Other Mitigations

There is one very interesting feature of Project Fi which is the autoconnect to WiFi hotspots. OfFiciandos of the service (see what I did there? I promise not to do it again...) get excited when they get "keys" which indicates that Fi has discovered a truly open WiFi hotspot and connected to it. Normally this is a Very Bad Idea(tm) from a security standpoint, but when Fi does this in the background it opens up a VPN connection to Google's servers. This encrypts the first mile of the connection, preventing others on the WiFi network from snooping any unencrypted data and even preventing the ISP and HotSpot owner from seeing anything - unlike standard WiFi encryption. The net result, if you live in an area with these open hotspots you may find that your data usage goes down pretty dramatically.

Coverage

I'm in Manhattan, show me a network I don't get coverage on and I'll be impressed. When traveling it's fine, but it's mostly been to populated areas. The dead spot by my mother's house is still a dead spot, and probably a little worse than Verizon, but considering it's an unholy union of three different networks Fi should provide adequate coverage for nearly all of the US population.

Essential Apps

Really? It's just a phone service. Do you guys switch apps based on whether you're on Verizon or AT&T? OK, there are a few I use. Of course, there's the Project Fi app. It does account management, but if you disable it just about everything works fine (I suspect network switching may require it, but data and phone calls do not).

I also use Signal Spy (and have upgraded it). You can use it (and a variety of other apps or dialer codes) to switch networks, but I wouldn't recommend it (and never have myself). I'd much rather see people file official reports that the switching isn't working properly to improve the algorithms, but it does count as another tool in the box. I use this mostly to track which networks I connect to, and I've noticed that I tend to prefer T-Mobile sometimes and Sprint others - both are perfectly adequate so I suspect it's more about data commitment agreements than anything else (ISP contracts are often negotiated such that at certain tiers you may end up spending less by shifting more bandwidth to the link to bump up to the next discount tier). Interesting data for me given my background, but how useful it is to others is suspect.

International Calling

When roaming Internationally you've got some choices you can make. Data billing is the same $10/GB so don't expect surprises there, but you may be limited in speed (there are reports that some places that should have 2G/3G speeds actually have LTE speeds, but don't count on it). Calling is another story. The fees vary, but 20c/minute is pretty common.

But, if you use the Hangouts Dialer you can use data services instead. Here if you're on WiFi the call may be free (assuming you're calling back to the US). It's suggested that if you're on data Hangouts uses 700kbps for a call. This translates to 5.25MB/minute or 5.25c/minute. Most codecs in use will introduce some variability so the exact value may be higher or lower, but you're still working with a 4x cost savings over voice calls as a baseline.

If you're calling someplace outside of the US, you may need to add a surcharge to this 5.25c/minute. As an example, calling a Japanese landline is an additional 3c/minute and a mobile is 9c a minute. This beats the 20c/minute for voice calls, but ~15c to call a mobile number isn't that far off.

Frequently Asked Questions

Some questions and suggestions come up a lot. I'll try to capture them here.

Fi is a ripoff, look how expensive the data is!

Yes, it is expensive for heavy users - good on you for calculating your bill before signing up. If you just have a phone you may find that it's just not worth it to switch to Fi unless you enjoy trying to minimize your data usage.

How can anyone use so little data?

It's actually pretty easy to reduce your data. I don't try hard and come in at less than 2GB most months, all because I do things like play Google Music when I'm home on WiFi to allow it to cache songs for when I'm away. I use Plex and Play Movies to pull my video files to my device before I leave on a trip. If I'm waiting for the subway and I want to update my apps, I connect to WiFi first. I also don't stare at my phone 24x7 which helps a lot.

Google should give away data for...

Ima pull a Kanye West on you right there. First, no they shouldn't. Second, no they can't afford to.

First the shouldn't. Research Net Neutrality. Let's say a mobile carrier gives away NetFlix data, maybe NetFlix pays them for the data or maybe it's a gimmick. In either case, this is great for the consumer, right? Except it's not. It means that switching from NetFlix to some other service competing with NetFlix just got a lot harder. I like NetFlix (mostly), they actually produce reasonable original content, they have OK pricing, it's much nicer for me to pay for access to a library than to pay per movie for rentals. But I want NetFlix to have competition. It keeps pricing low, content fresh, and pushes them to introduce new features and functionality. If NetFlix had a lock on mobile users because they're big enough to afford paying for both their own data usage and the usage of their customers that's bad in the long run. Whether it's your favorite streaming service, Google-sourced ads, or anything else the key for Android users is to imagine a world where Apple paid wireless operators for the data their own services consumed so they could lock people into iTunes.

Now the can't. A seemingly good rule of thumb for mobile stuff is that the platform owner makes 30% of the money on an app purchase. Let's be stupid and apply this to other things, so the $10/GB actually costs Google $7/GB and they see $3/GB. A common request is to include a Play Music subscription in that cost. Well, that's $10/month and we'll say that Google sees $3/month of that. At 320kbps that's 144MB an hour costing Google $1. So now if the average is one hour a month you're taking what should be $1.44 in revenue to Fi and $10 in revenue to Play Music and turning it into a $1 loss for Fi and a $7 loss for Play Music. Would you rather have someone pay you $11.44 so you can pay your bill of $8 and end up with $3.44 or would you prefer to just give away the $8 and hope you make it up in volume? Let's further the bad math and assume that the average Fi user uses 2GB of data meaning that the revenue per user is $40/month, the costs are $28 and by giving away Music the costs jump to $36. $4/month to support a service isn't worth anyone's time - because that doesn't include things like customer support, negotiations with other carriers, R&D to make network switching work better, the cost of data for all those key connections...

I don't know how the Music deal is structured at all, but I do know a little about the telecom industry. Google paying $7/GB is pretty darn optimistic. According to some 2013 data T-Mobile was charging MVNOs like Fi $30/GB (see paragraph 83 of the original filing). It does drop rapidly, in 2014 it seems fair to guess it was more $18, and last year it could have been $11. Maybe next year we'll be able to see a price decrease, but that depends on how much of a loss leader Google allowed Fi to be initially to gain customer base.

I'm not getting a key for this free WiFi

First of all, is it really free? Remember that Google isn't a basement developer, they kind of need to play the legal game. If you connect to a network and you need to click through a Terms of Service agreement (click "OK" to connect sort of thing) Fi won't do that for you unless they have an agreement with the owner. Even the Google-sponsored LinkNYC doesn't get me keys (yet!) and I don't expect it in the subways since the MTA has chosen to use the screen to show ads.

If you have the network in your list, you'll want to forget it. If you tell your device to connect Google assumes you don't want the key.

Aside from that, I suspect the best method is to connect to the WiFi whenever you're there and invite your Fi friends to do the same. Google crowdsources a lot of their data, they just don't know about that hotspot yet. *Most* of the data you send out of a device should already be encrypted, if you want to be sure use a browser instead of an app, it gives you better feedback that a site is TLS-encrypted - that's just one of the multitude of reasons not to use the Facebook app.

What about privacy, I don't want to give Google all my data!

What about it? Remember, it's not Google's network - they don't have any access to the data other than the billing data the carriers give them. Yes, they'll know your phone number, but if you've bought anything from them with a credit card they already know that. Similarly they don't seem to have any additional access to a Fi Nexus device than they do to a regular Nexus device.

The one thing that could be a concern is the VPN. Google is tunneling the encrypted data to their datacenter and, in theory, they could snoop anything that's not encrypted end-to-end (they can't see the contents of your secure connection to this website, but if you go to an unencrypted website they could in theory snoop on that). However, this can be disabled if it's a concern to you and the potential for other Google services doing naughty things is much higher.

There are certainly some legitimate reasons (and a lot more illegitimate reasons) to be concerned with privacy and Google, but I'm not seeing Fi as one of those reasons.