Six months in, Google's Project Fi remains an enigma

Google says it wants to accelerate the growth of its mobile experiment in the new year, but it may need more phones and a tablet or two for a wider reach.

project fi nexus primary blurred
Derek Walter

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It’s been about six months since Google went into the wireless business.

No, Google didn’t build a bunch of cell towers to take on Verizon or AT&T. Instead, Project Fi is an insurrection against many of the annoying facets of smartphone life. Project Fi offers a simple plan, whereby you only pay for data you use. Your phone automatically hops between T-Mobile, Sprint, and open Wi-Fi networks to try and keep you constantly connected.

But Google’s mobile service is an “experiment,” and not open to just anyone. Project Fi only works with three of its own smartphones: the Nexus 6P, 5X, and 6. And even though the service isn’t new, it still remains invite-only.

Google has offered some indications, however, that Project Fi might be more than a one-off experiment. Lately we’ve heard some hints directly from Google as to what its future plans might entail.

Why Project Fi?

Project Fi is what’s known as an MVNO (Mobile Virtual Network Operator)—a cell provider that leases access from the major carriers and resells it. Think of Boost Mobile or MetroPCS. In the case of Project Fi, Google provides access through both T-Mobile and Sprint’s networks. Google also engineered the Nexus 6, 6P, and 5X to automatically hop to whichever service or open Wi-Fi network is offering the best signal. The advantage being that none of the data used on Wi-Fi counts towards your monthly plan. Project Fi also uses Google Voice, which means your phone calls and text messages can be accessed on any device where you can sign in to your account.

project fi devices Project Fi

Project Fi uses your Google Voice number to keep conversations and messaging synced up across multiple devices.

The plans are pretty price friendly: it’s $20 per month for unlimited calls and texts, with $10 for each GB of data. Anything you don’t use each month is applied as a credit toward next month’s bill at a rate of one cent per MB.

When it comes to the big “why” behind Project Fi, the company often touts its network capabilities and unique pricing structure. But all that work sure seems to have a bigger goal in mind.

A Google spokesperson told us that the company wants to see more growth in 2016. The company wasn’t willing to detail what that might look like specifically in terms of subscriber growth.   

“Over the past six months we’ve welcomed our first users, launched support for two new devices, and used feedback and data to make continuous improvements to our service. We look forward to accelerating our growth in the months to come.”

To determine what form that acceleration could take, it’s worth looking at another business where Google has gone into new territory. Whenever Google has done this in the past, the goal has been to push an existing industry in a direction more favorable for its business. Chrome OS pushed the price of Internet-connected laptops down. Google Fiber is shoving the cable industry into the world of faster speeds. The latter is and especially telling example.

The Google Fiber playbook

In 2012, Google Fiber began as an effort to push broadband Internet speeds to new heights by dumping old phone and cable wires and stringing fiber directly to residential homes. Not long after Google’s gigabit Internet service caught on, suddenly AT&T, Comcast, and others ramped up their Internet speeds and lowered prices—but only in areas where Google competes. Fiber didn’t exactly take over (it’s still only running or scheduled to come to seven cities so far) but it’s shaping expectations for Internet service.

It’s sounds like a similar story to what’s going on with Project Fi. While T-Mobile has pushed other companies to change their pricing structures, Project Fi could serve as a model for how to further simplify plans or engineer better coverage. Google will have certainly acquired a lot of knowledge about reception and connectivity by doing Project Fi, which is something that may produce smarter radios for smartphones or other means for a more ubiquitous connection. And unlike Google Fiber, the whole country is effectively a competing market for Project Fi. The real hold-back is the limited device availability.

The most detailed public statement comes from Sabrina Ellis, a director of product management at Google. At the September press event debuting the Nexus 6P and 5X, she proclaimed that both phones would join the Nexus 6 on the network.

nexus 5x nexus 6p

Both the Nexus 6P and 5X work with Google’s Project Fi network.

“We launched Project Fi a few months ago to offer a fast, easy wireless experience and to drive innovation with leading partners like Sprint and T-Mobile,” she said. “ With today’s announcement, Fi users will have a larger set of phones to choose from.”

Along with praising Fi’s “high quality connection that intelligently selects between networks” she remarked that, “It’s still early days for Project Fi.”

While that statement alone doesn’t guarantee a long-term commitment, there are other hints out there, especially when it comes to expanding to other devices. The Moto X Pure Edition, for example, unofficially works with Project Fi. The fact that an unlocked phone can talk to Project Fi on some level (only the T-Mobile towers, it appears) demonstrates that it’s entirely possible for future unlocked devices to work on Fi along with other carriers. Don’t be surprised if the Moto X or another phone makes it to Project Fi in the new year.

project fi nexus 6p YouTube

Google’s Sabrina Ellis announced the Nexus 6P and 5X would work with Project Fi at the phones’ unveiling in September.

There’s also yet to be a tablet launch on Project Fi. Given that Google said “devices” with its future rollout we could see the Nexus 9 or a forthcoming Nexus tablet appear as Project Fi options. It would be a good way for someone who doesn’t want to ditch their phone plan to dabble with Project Fi and see if they like how the service works. Again, Google wouldn’t confirm this, but it would be a smart move.

There’s always an escape plan

Google isn’t afraid to pull the plug when something doesn’t work. The latest example is Helpouts, a service the company shut down earlier this year. Google sought to build a unique platform where anyone could offer live video help over Hangouts.

The service didn’t have much traction, so away it went. Similarly, Google could just shut down Project Fi if it doesn’t work out or change the industry in any major way. You don’t sign a service contract and can cancel your service with Project Fi at anytime, so Google could do the same.

Another sign to watch for is if Google brings in some type of family plan in 2016. That would be another sign of stability for the service, as it would indicate that subscribers are pressuring the Internet giant for more flexibility to add in family members.

The biggest impact to you (and the majority of those who don’t have Project Fi) is in what Google will use from its experiment to further improve its services. Google already knows your location, web browsing, and search history. It could use the data available from Project Fi to further enhance services like Google Now or shopping offers. Or by having a host of data about wireless use habits, Google could very well be able to offer advertisers more specific information and fine-tune its location know-how.

For now, Project Fi looks very much like an experiment. It’s one that’s certainly for the early adopter who is willing to go all in with their Google Voice number and forego the traditional elements of a mobile plan like retail stores and family packages. Google’s relative reticence about detailing upcoming details tells us the company might have a lot up its sleeve in the next year. All that makes Project Fi a mystery worth paying attention to.

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