If you’re an Android user, Google likely already manages your day: your email, your contacts, stories that are relevant to you, and even your fitness goals. Well, now it can be your wireless carrier, too (provided you use a Nexus 6).
After months of rumors, Google’s Project Fi is finally live. The search giant promises “fast speed in more places and better connections to Wi-Fi” by teaming up with Sprint and T-mobile to offer a wide swath of Wi-Fi and 4G LTE coverage. You can use Google’s handy search widget to see if the service is available in your area.
Basic plans cost $20 for unlimited calls and texts, plus $10 per GB for data. You have to specific how much data you want ahead of time (so, 4GB a month will cost you a total of $60), but Google has a twist: they’ll credit your bill for your unused data. There are no family plans available.
A phone with Project Fi will automatically connect to public, open Wi-Fi networks to make calls and transmit data. Google maintains a list of hotspots with robust and reliable connections. To secure your data, all transmissions over public Wi-Fi hotspots are encrypted.
Project Fi appears intended primarily for mobile coverage throughout the U.S., though there are international rates if you’re traveling overseas. These mirror T-Mobile’s offerings on post-paid plans: In 120 countries, you get free data (capped at 256kbps) and texts, while calls cost 20 cents a minute. There are also special rates for calling other countries from the US, which should bode well for those with family members spread throughout the world.
The impact on you: In theory, Project Fi will be an affordable option for getting network coverage in the U.S. without being tied down to a single carrier, and though its offerings may not be a whole lot cheaper than what T-Mobile currently offers, for instance, this could have long-term benefits for both Google and Android.
Google can test out carrier at network-level features and potentially build them directly into the Android OS, which would give the platform an edge—especially in low income areas and emerging markets. Project Fi might also be enticing for those who need a supplemental phone for travel, but don’t want to bother dealing with their carrier.
If you’re interested, Google has a whole explainer on plans and pricing, though the service is currently only available on Google’s Nexus 6 phablet.
What’s so different about it?
As detailed in its official blog post, Google Fi is aimed at solving three particular problems: ensuring you stay connected via the strongest network wherever you are, making it easy for you to communicate with those in your life, and simplifying your mobile experience so that you’re not constantly scratching your head about your wireless service. If you want the whole spiel, watch Google’s promotional video.
If you’ve ever tried to decipher the pricing of most wireless carrier plans in the U.S., you’ll appreciate Google’s simple structure.
How does the cost compare?
That all depends on your situation and where you live. At Verizon Wireless you’ll pay about $75 for 3GB a month, at AT&T about $80. Sprint and T-Mobile are more affordable, with $50 and $60 plans, respectively. That’s a lot of money for one person to pay for data, and that doesn’t even include international rates or text and voice. For a single person who needs basic phone coverage, Project Fi could be a worthy alternative, though you’ll have to factor in coverage area as well.
As mentioned, Project Fi doesn’t currently offer family plans, but depending on how big your family is, you could actually save some money with one. Verizon Wireless, for instance, offers a deal for two lines for two people at $100 a month, with 6GB of data to split between the two. On Project Fi, it’s only $50 a month for two people to get 3GB of data each with unlimited calls and text messages, and whatever you don’t use in data you get back as a refund at the end of the month. T-Mobile offers a two-line Unlimited data plan for $100. That would get you 3GB for each of the two lines on Fi.
The utter simplicity of Google’s plans might end up being a huge point of attraction for consumers. Figuring out how to get the best smartphone plan is a hassle—after all, isn’t that why carrier kiosks still exist? If you can’t get the best deal online, you might as well get in your car, leave the house, and go to the brick-and-mortar location to talk to someone about slipping you a better deal. Choosing a carrier and plan is a serious hassle.
For bigger families—like a family of four—Project Fi may not make sense financially. But for a small household or individual looking for the bare bone basics of mobile coverage, Google’s offerings seem like it could be a formidable option if it becomes widely available.
When can I sign up for it?
Right now, this is an “Early Access Project.” You can request an invitation for Project Fi as long as you have a Nexus 6 smartphone. Once you’re accepted, Google will send over a Project Fi SIM card. Google says it chose the Nexus 6 because it “works with the Project Fi SIM card, which supports multiple cellular networks.”
What we still don’t know
Project Fi is still nascent. We don’t know how many public, high-quality Wi-Fi hotspots Google actually has listed in its database, or how good the coverage is despite it piggybacking on Sprint and T-Mobile’s networks. We don’t know what other phones will be compatible with Project Fi, or if it will be limited to Google’s Nexus devices (or even just the Nexus 6 or later phones). We don’t know what will happen to those T-Mobile or Sprint subscribers who might want to take part in Project Fi, either, or which networks are working with Google overseas to ensure data coverage.
We do know this: Google says Project Fi is a limited-scale experiment not meant to take on the big carriers, but it may still end up being the best thing to happen to Android users. Right now, Android is limited and locked down mostly because of the carriers. With stock Android phones running on multiple mobile networks and open Wi-Fi, this could be Google finally giving its users what they want: completely untethered, open access to the world for a very attractive price. At the very least, it may teach carriers that we all want simpler, no-nonsense plan options.