Google’s Project Fi has started making its way into the hands of U.S. consumers, and over the last two months we’ve seen reviews from many tech media outlets. We thought it would be interesting to take the temperature of those reviews, to see how the tech world is reacting to Google’s freshman attempt to becoming a mobile operator.
It’s fair to say that most of the commentary is positive. Reviewers in general are encouraged by the service itself and Google’s metered pricing, which essentially charges you only for the data you use at simple, reasonable rates. But it’s also clear Google has some kinks to work out in Project Fi, especially if you’re an avid Google Voice user.
A Nexus 6 phone, which is currently the only device that can fully connect to the Project Fi network. Photo Credit: Flickr user Chris F)
First off, I should explain how Project Fi differs from the usual operator services out there. Google is operating as what’s known as a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO). That means it doesn’t actually own any mobile networks or spectrum. Instead it buys voice minutes and data capacity off of someone else’s network (for more details, check out my earlier blog post explaining MVNOs).
Most MVNOs, however, have a single contract with a single operator in any particular country, meaning their networks are only good as their partners’ networks. What’s unique about Project Fi is Google is teaming up with two operators, T-Mobile US and Sprint, and it’s leaning extensively on public Wi-Fi hotspots. The idea is Project Fi will deliver you the best data or call experience available in any given moment or place by automatically selecting the best network connection available.
Though reviewers found that speeds on Project Fi weren’t any more impressive than what they’d get on a regular operator, many like Android Central’s Andrew Martonik were impressed with the coverage and consistency Project Fi’s multi-network setup produced. Wrote Martonik:
“The auto-switching networks has turned out to be absolutely great so far in our testing. We’ve been able to get great speeds in the denser parts of the city where T-Mobile has historically done better than Sprint, and in a more rural area where our T-Mobile phones didn’t have better than EDGE service we actually had Sprint LTE on our Project Fi Nexus 6.”
In fact, most reviewers fawned over the multi-network aspect of Project Fi, claiming it handed off calls and data sessions seamlessly between cellular networks and Wi-Fi. Some even described the capability as “magic.” But Canadian software developer Nicholas Armstrong performed a deep dive into the network selection mechanics of his Fi Nexus 6 and found that the service wasn’t quite as flexible as reviewers made it out to be. Instead of flitting between networks like a bandwidth hungry butterfly, Project Fi has some clear rules and limitations on when and how it can move between Wi-Fi, Sprint and T-Mobile connections.
In his blog, Armstrong wrote that Project Fi basically functions like a phone with dual SIM cards, except it can only access one network at a time. That means it has to disconnect from either Sprint or T-Mobile’s network to reconnect to the other. The result is that when active in a call or data session the Nexus 6 needs to remain on single network, so it can’t pass a call or data session between Sprint or T-Mobile’s network even if a better connection is available. While Project Fi can definitely pass a call from Wi-Fi to cellular, Armstrong says, it can’t do the reverse, and even that hand-off from Wi-Fi to cellular comes with a 2 to 5 second hiccup.
This isn’t a knock on Google. These kind of connection transfers between networks are very difficult to do, made even harder by the fact that Sprint and T-Mobile use completely different network technologies (T-Mobile uses GSM, while Sprint is on CDMA. They both have LTE networks, though Sprint uses an LTE variant). Armstrong’s tests just show Google and the mobile industry in general have a lot of work to do before we have devices that can flip between networks on a whim.
The other feature reviewers were particularly optimistic about was Google’s pricing plan, which is done on a simple meter of $1 for 100 MBs. There’s no bucket or rollover plan to consider. If you use 900 MBs in a month, your charged $9. That’s hardly a mind-blowing concept, but it’s been one that the major operators have been loathe to adopt. CNET’s Lynn La writes:
“I did find Project Fi’s pricing structure, an aspect of other wireless networks that many find to be frustrating, to be extremely user friendly. Its transparency is reassuring, and the fact that you don’t have to worry about overshooting or letting your monthly data allotment go to waste is a relief.”
Some reviewers, however, did find one big glaring fault with the service, but one you’ll only notice if you have an active Google Voice number. Voice is Google’s attempt at creating a unified number and service that can be shared across multiple devices. It has a lot of fans, despite the fact Google has been mucking around with it in recent years as it folds Voice into Hangouts.
If you have no Google Voice account, writes The Verge’s Dieter Bohn, you’ll move onto Project Fi with ease. Google will simply assign you a new Voice number, which will work like any other mobile number. If you are a Google Voice user, though, Bohn says, “prepare for confusion.” His review continues:
“It gets worse, I’m afraid. Precisely what happens when you port your number from Voice to Fi (which are kind of the same thing — but not really!) is clear as mud. Many attempts have been made to quash the Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt surrounding these issues. While the various explainers you can find on the web are technically accurate, they are also emotionally unsatisfying. Witness! You won’t lose your Google Voice number, and it will still do most of the stuff it did before, but you may have to wend your way back to the 2011-era Google Voice site to manage it. Your texts no longer forward via SMS but they’re available in the Hangouts App. You can’t call people from Google Voice on the web but you can from Hangouts. Oh, and on Android there’s a Hangouts dialer app you can use, sometimes, just because.”
There’s an easy answer right? Just don’t connect your Google Voice number to your Project Fi phone. Nice try. The Washington Post’s Brian Fung writes:
“If Google detects that you have a Google Voice number when you finally register with Project Fi, it prompts you to assign that number to your Project Fi phone. If you’d rather not and ask to use a different number instead, Google will take away your Google Voice number — “no getting it back,” Google’s registration page says.”
If you’re not turned off by the Google Voice issues and are ready to give Fi a try, you’re in for a wait. Project Fi is still in beta, and like other Google beta services, you have to get an invite to join. You can request an invite on the Fi site, but it may take weeks or even months to hear back. But even if you don’t plan on becoming a Project Fi customer, writes Kevin Tofel at ZDNet, it might worth signing up for the $30 welcome kit just for the extra goodies it comes with.
I should also mention that Project Fi customers have started downloading the OpenSignal app (Thank you!), which means we’re starting to collect information on how Project Fi’s unique network performs. We’re still in the process of compiling that data, but in the next few weeks we should have some analysis to share.