Project Fi is a mobile virtual network operator or an MVNO. Google does not operate its own cellular network. If you want to sell a nationwide cellular service in the U.S., you generally have to contract with one (or more) of the four companies that run the most towers: AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, or Verizon. That’s because it’s insanely expensive to build a nationwide network of cellular towers.
AT&T and Verizon tend to be very stingy with their MVNO contracts, so startups looking to innovate turn to Sprint and T-Mobile. Project Fi is the first MVNO to seamlessly combine the Sprint and T-Mobile networks, which don’t easily mix because one is GSM and the other is CDMA. (Check my explainer for why those are incompatible.) It also lets you send calls and texts over Wi-Fi, and roam in and out of Wi-Fi zones without your call dropping.
There are other carriers that have both Sprint and T-Mobile contracts, such as Ting, although you can’t have both networks on one device. There are also other carriers that combine Sprint and Wi-Fi calling, such as Republic Wireless. T-Mobile also has its own Wi-Fi calling system.
The mystique of Google is also potent here. Back in 2010, Google said it wanted to tear down the carrier-controlled phone sales system with the Nexus One. It failed because Verizon simply said “no” and went about its business. So there’s the possibility that Google wants to do something truly competitive or disruptive.
But always remember: MVNOs are at the mercy of their host carriers. The host carriers will never hand out a contract that will truly hurt their own businesses. That really limits the ability of MVNOs to be a disruptive force, because the host carriers can just yank the contracts if that happens.
Project Fi has the classiest welcome box I’ve ever seen from a carrier—it’s big, white, and rounded, echoing the Nexus 6 and Nexus 9. Open it up and there’s a nano-SIM for the Nexus 6, a pair of earbuds with a headphone splitter, a 6,000mAh backup battery, and a Fi-branded phone case. Nice.
To set up the service, you must download the free Project Fi app and attach it to a Fi-approved Google account. Your service is tied to your Google account; non-approved accounts can’t download the app, and if the SIM is put into a phone without the right account, it gets voice-only T-Mobile service.
The Fi app is clean and simple. It lets you monitor your data usage, your plan and your bill, and even request support from within the app. As you might expect from Google, it’s faster and easier to use than any of the account management apps from the major carriers.
Project Fi Cell Phone Plans
For $20 a month on Project Fi, you get unlimited talk and text, including unlimited international texting. Data is a flat $10 per gigabyte, even when roaming internationally. You can add five more lines to your plan, each for $15 per month. Everyone’s data is still charged at $10 per gigabyte. If users get to the end of the month and haven’t used all of their data, Project Fi will credit them roughly 1 cent per MB of unused data. This credit will then be applied to the following month’s bill.
- Unlimited calls and texts: $20
- Data: $10 per GB
- Extra lines: $15 per line (up to five extra lines, six in total)
- >> Check out Project Fi Plans
The refund idea aside, the stated prices are on the low end for individual plans in the U.S., but major carriers offer better deals for families or groups. With Project Fi, 3GB of data per month would cost $50 and 10GB would cost $120. Sprint offers a single-line unlimited data deal for $60. T-Mobile has 3GB for $60 and unlimited data for $80.
With more lines, Project Fi is a worse deal. Sprint’s current 10GB, 4-line promotion costs $100 per month; that would cost $180 with Fi. Verizon has the same $20/line fee as Fi does, but becomes less expensive at larger data levels. Fi is cheaper than Verizon for combined data buckets under 6GB, but Verizon is cheaper over 6GB.
But Fi’s true Achilles heel—and the reason T-Mobile and Sprint are letting Google do this—is that it only works on the Nexus 6, a $499 phone with limited appeal because it’s relatively gigantic. There’s a valid technical reason for this (you need a Qualcomm MDM9625 modem to pull off what Google is doing), but it’s convenient for the carriers because it will keep the volume of users quite low.
It also makes Google Fi painfully difficult to recommend. I don’t particularly like the Nexus 6, and I’m in favor of device choice. And the carrier may be stuck here. While the Moto X Style, for instance, has the same hardware capabilities as the Nexus 6, Google says the phone won’t work with Fi.
Coverage and Travel
Google says that Project Fi combines Sprint and T-Mobile coverage. That makes it better for people who travel the nation than either of those carriers are individual. The carrier also offers cheap roaming in 120 countries. Calls made over Wi-Fi are free, calls made over cellular networks cost 20 cents per minute, and data costs the same $10/GB overseas that it costs domestically. That makes Fi a good choice for international travelers who don’t need true high-speed data. We tested it on a trip to Australia and found that, as advertised, it’s capped to 256kbps. That’s still much better than the 128kbps or lower speeds we’ve seen with T-Mobile’s free global roaming, although unlike T-Mobile, Google doesn’t offer an option for high-speed data passes.
Comparing the domestic coverage maps, T-Mobile has better LTE coverage than Sprint all around, but Sprint adds coverage in regions like central Wisconsin and Iowa where T-Mobile is weak.
Project Fi’s official map is much more similar to Sprint’s than to T-Mobile’s. In places like metro Bemidji, MN and eastern Washington state, T-Mobile’s coverage map shows greater LTE than Project Fi does. Google insists you will get LTE with Fi wherever there is T-Mobile service, so my conclusion is simply that T-Mobile updates its own coverage map more frequently than Google does.
Combining the networks has benefits even where both networks are available. In our tests, we easily found places in New York City where Sprint but not T-Mobile dropped, and vice versa (usually deep within buildings.) Project Fi switched networks and kept going.
All the same, Sprint plus T-Mobile still doesn’t equal Verizon. The two carriers are much more focused on metropolitan areas than rural ones, so they drop out in regions like eastern North Carolina, southern Georgia, central Pennsylvania, the upper peninsula of Michigan, and much of Vermont. Fi will not satisfy users who want truly nationwide LTE.
Google says that Project Fi continually searches for the network with the best throughput and switches to the optimal option. That’s not what we saw. Rather, we saw that on boot, the Nexus 6 looked for the strongest network (Sprint or T-Mobile) and attached to it. It remained with that network until the network dropped, at which point it looked again.
The phone defaulted to T-Mobile in our office, but I got it to switch to Sprint by going to a known location where T-Mobile service is very weak. It then stayed with Sprint even in places where Sprint’s LTE speeds were very low—0.31Mbps down on Sprint as compared with 10Mbps down on a T-Mobile phone. On a reboot, it re-attached to T-Mobile.
The system also seamlessly mixes in known Wi-Fi networks, making calls over Wi-Fi whenever possible. To do that, it forces Wi-Fi on if there’s a known network in the area. Google says the system doesn’t do this, but it does: whenever I turned Wi-Fi off, it snapped back on if I was near a “remembered” network. Only by forgetting known networks could I successfully keep Wi-Fi turned off.
Speeds do not appear to be capped or limited in any way. I regularly got speeds above 15Mbps on Sprint and T-Mobile in good coverage areas. Project Fi does not support HD voice calling, though.
Since it’s tied to a Google account, Fi integrates several Google services. You’ll be notified of calls and text messages on any device where you’re logged in with Hangouts, and you can answer voice calls via Hangouts from your PC. Voicemails also get transcribed and texted to you, although you can also pick them up the conventional way. Transcriptions are quite accurate.
Google’s Project Fi is a marvelous idea, but it has limited appeal. It only works with the Nexus 6, which will keep demand low, and it’s not actually that cheap. That’s a pity because Fi’s smooth-running app and integration with Hangouts are what all four of the major carriers should be doing. Its ability to combine Sprint and T-Mobile also offers consumers the benefits that would have come from a merger of the two carriers, without the loss in competition and the higher prices that come from mergers. Ideally, this technology could make our nation’s wireless market even more competitive, with better coverage for all.
There are lots of alternatives out there beyond the four major carriers. Take a look at our Best Prepaid Plans story for some suggestions. But directly competing with Google Fi, there’s Republic Wireless, which offers two phones rather than one, combines Sprint and Wi-Fi, and costs less. There are also carriers like Ting, that work with any Sprint or T-Mobile phone. If you prefer AT&T or Verizon coverage and you don’t have a family plan, Tracfone’s Straight Talk MVNO can save you money, as it now operates on either of those larger networks (depending on the phone.)