Investing in the Digital Transformation › Forums › Research › Project Fi Review: Google Masters Wi-Fi Calling, but Needs Better Phones
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July 8, 2015 at 3:10 pm #1016pc_adminKeymaster
For millions of us, Google is the backbone of our digital lives. So it’s a little incongruous that to get to its many services, we generally go through carriers such as Comcast, Verizon or AT&T. In a few towns across America, Google has eliminated the middleman and started providing broadband service. Now it’s taking on wireless with Project Fi.
An affordable alternative to many mainstream and discount carriers, Project Fi routes calls and data through Wi-Fi whenever possible (hence the name). It roams on T-Mobile and Sprint networks when no Wi-Fi can be found. Dead simple to set up and use, its rates start at $30 a month. It could save you some money if you accept some big limitations.
It only works with one phone, for starters. The Nexus 6, built by Motorola in collaboration with Google, is a speedy smartphone with a gorgeous display and the best, most unaltered version of Android you can find. But it has a middling camera and its 6-inch display makes it massive to hold. If Project Fi’s SIM cards worked in phones from Samsung, HTC—dare I say, Apple?—it’d be easier to recommend.
Service is also limited to invites right now. You put in your request for service at fi.google.com, leaving your Gmail address and ZIP Code. Then you wait. Weeks or perhaps months later, you’ll receive an email saying you qualify.
At that point, you have to buy an unlocked Nexus 6 for $500 (assuming you don’t have one already), then sign up for the only plan Google offers: $20 a month for your line plus a “data budget” in $10-per-gigabyte tiers.
Though you must sign up for at least 1 GB, the cost of the data you don’t use is credited to your next bill. Likewise, if you go over by a fraction of a gigabyte, you only owe a fraction of the extra $10. It’s like a taxi meter that just keeps running, and it’s a refreshing change from current carrier billing models, which typically make you pay for more than you use. (Google charges standard taxes and government fees, which will add an extra 10% to 20% to your bill.)
When the phone and SIM card arrive in the mail, you also get a colorful welcome kit, which includes earbuds, an external battery pack and a phone case.
You set up the phone by downloading the Project Fi app, logging into your Google account and inserting the SIM. After that, the service feels like any other.
Google gives you unlimited domestic talk and texts, with a competitive international roaming plan. Any data usage that happens over a Wi-Fi network is free; any usage that happens on a cellular network—in the U.S. or over 120 supported countries—eats into your data budget at the fixed rate.
I’ve had a solid signal around most of San Francisco, where I live, and I had lousy connectivity with lots of dead zones around Lake Tahoe, where I spent the weekend. Phones running on AT&T and Verizon networks experienced roughly the same network performance during my tests in the city and country.
In dead zones like the one in Tahoe, the ability to make and receive phone calls over Wi-Fi came in handy. This isn’t unique to Project Fi, however. Sprint and T-Mobile allow for Wi-Fi calling on iPhones built in the last two years. And discount carriers such as Republic Wireless, Scratch Wireless and FreedomPop also are using the Wi-Fi angle to differentiate themselves from the big players. (In fact, Republic Wireless announced a Project Fi-like pricing plan on Tuesday.)
Google’s real secret is in the handoff from Wi-Fi to cellular or vice versa. When I made a call on my home Wi-Fi, then kept talking as I walked out into the streets of San Francisco, the transition was seamless. But Google also allows for a seamless handoff between the T-Mobile and Sprint networks without you noticing. That’s magic.
While anyone with a Gmail account can request an invite, it’s important to realize that Project Fi is, at this stage, an experiment. When announcing the mobile phone service, Google senior vice president of products Sundar Pichai said the company doesn’t intend to upend major carriers. The point of Project Fi is to show what is technically possible and to push major carriers to adopt Google’s ideas.
If Google can convince carriers to let us pay only for the data we use, and if Wi-Fi calling becomes standard across all phones and carriers, that would be a win for consumers (and Google’s own services, of course).
Can Google make it happen? Just look at Google’s Fiber broadband project in places like Kansas City, Mo., to gauge the company’s influence over the Internet’s gatekeepers. Fi company wields influence, and Project Fi is an obvious attempt to nudge the wireless industry.
Google could also get something else out of this experiment: even more information about you. Google told the Journal that it’s collecting all the same data that mobile carriers typically collect on subscribers. Though with all the data it gathers already, that may not amount to much.
“Carriers usually track things like location, who you’re communicating with and when, what websites you visit, what apps are asking for data, things like that,” says Jeremy Gillula, a technologist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit with a stated mission of defending civil liberties in the digital world. “If you’re someone who’s logged into Chrome, using Google Maps, Google Voice and Gmail, they’re already getting most of this information.”
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