Project Fi is a cell phone carrier operated by Google. It uses a combination of T-mobile and the Sprint cellular networks, along with WiFi calling. Currently you must have one of three phones, the Nexus 5X, 6, or 6P. Project Fi has the Nexus 5X currently discounted to $199 with Project Fi sign up (this is $150 discount and once the phone is activated on Project Fi, you can discontinue service and keep the phone at any time.)
The benefits of Project Fi are easy to quantify. Because you’re using a Nexus phone on Google’s network, you will get all Android updates as soon as they’re released. Financially, Project Fi is a very good deal for most users. In addition to the discounts on the Nexus phones, unlimited voice and texting costs only $20 per month. Data plans add $10 / gigabytes, but any unused data is refunded at the end of the month. Project Fi provides an app that allows you to both monitor and change your plan within the app. The service also includes tethering, so you can provide wifi to a tablet or laptop in addition to your phone.
The icing on the cake is free international roaming, allowing you to use Project Fi in almost anywhere in the world without extra charges. We could, for example, use our phones on trips to visit family in Ukraine – something few other providers can match. (Of course, the Nexus phones are GSM models, so you could also opt for a local SIM card when traveling, which gives you the advantage of an in-country phone number, if you want to go that route.) Journalist Paul Thurrott has been using Project Fi while traveling in Europe and is ecstatic about it, as you can read here.
In our case, we were paying about $130 a month with AT&T for two phones and 3 gigabytes of data monthly. With Project Fi, the charges – with all taxes included — run under $90 per month, assuming we use our 2 gigabytes of data each. In practice, we’re using just about 1.25 gigabytes, which means our actual cost for 2 phones is about $80 per month, or $50 less than the AT&T plan. This savings will pay for the discounted cost of 2 Nexus 5X 32 gig phones well within the first year of service.
So, how well does it work? Quite well indeed, after a couple months of use. We live in the suburbs of Seattle and voice and LTE data (usually connecting through Tmobile) has been quite reliable. If you have WiFi available at home and work, then you’ll use very little data. There’s been very little to really remark on service-wise: it just works. Wifi calling is totally invisible and has been 100% reliable to date.
Some time ago I signed up with Republic Wireless, which offered a similar cell + wifi service at low cost. We were early adopters, so our handset choice was limited to older Motorola smart phones. The Wifi calling hand-offs on Republic were often unreliable (very poor voice quality), and texting was a bit rocky, too. After a couple of months, I left Republic Wireless because of these issues. They’re still operating and have newer handsets available, so perhaps their service is better, but I don’t have any recent experience with them. Needless to say, this experience left me a little apprehensive about what the service on Project Fi might be like.
It’s notable that Project Fi works just like the Google voice service, so you have the option of forwarding calls to another number and the voice mail service includes the written transcriptions of voice mail which Google Voice users have long enjoyed. I’m currently using Google Hangouts for SMS messages, and one result is that I can receive and reply to texts on any device – tablet, laptop, and desktop PC – where I’m logged into Google. In fact, when a voice call comes in, I can answer it on any of those devices as well.
Signing up and getting started on Project Fi was remarkably easy. When you go to the Project Fi website, you can sign up for service and get a discounted phone in just a few minutes. Everything is billed through a credit or debit card, rather than the separate billing of traditional carriers. When you sign up, they will ask for basic information about your current service if you want to port over your number. The only “catch” here is that if you had a Google voice number, you’ll either need to use the Google Voice number, or cancel the Google Voice number to use your “regular” cell number.
Within about a week, we had our phones in hand, receiving two boxes from Google, each with a phone and Project Fi SIM card. You insert the Project Fi SIM and set up the phone as usual. Coming from another Android phone, the setup was simple as Google allows you to transfer all the backed up settings and apps from your previous phone…. Which is very welcome – you do have to wait while everything is downloaded, but the hands-on time for set up is under 15 minutes. Similarly, because I’d provided the information required to port my nuAs mber over when I signed up, the new phone was activated and running with my phone number within 30 minutes (Project Fi will tell you this may take a day or so.)
There are very few risks and downsides with Project Fi. Assuming you need a new phone anyway, the pricing is very good on the Nexus phones, and once the phone is activated on Project Fi, you can keep the phone even if you discontinue service. So if you try Project Fi and it doesn’t work out for you, you at least got a new Nexus phone at a substantial discount that you can use with another carrier. While the Nexus phones are great – running “pure” Android and getting the newest updates and newest Android versions immediately, you can’t use a Samsung or other non-Nexus phone on Project Fi at the moment. As mentioned above, if you have an existing Google Voice number, you either need to use it on Project Fi or kill the Google Voice number – not ideal, but understandable given the way the service works.
Of course, it’s always possible that Google will at some point discontinue Project Fi. I know some people will be concerned with this as Google’s history of sometimes discontinuing products casts a long shadow. However, I think it’s much more likely that Google will grow Project Fi, given that one of the major headaches Google has is with cellular carriers who drag their feet on Android upgrades. There’s little argument that Google wants more control over this process, and Project Fi provides them with exactly that. That said, should Google discontinue Project Fi in the future, the GSM / LTE phones will work fine on other carriers, just as my former Nexus 5 worked on AT&T.
All in all, Project Fi is a great service and if you’re at a point where you need a new phone, it’s a very cost effective package. Although I had my concerns based on earlier experience with Republic Wireless’s cellular + wifi model, Project Fi’s service has been outstanding. Indeed, if I didn’t know it was using two cellular networks + wifi, there would be no way to tell this was happening. So, kudos to Google for a wonderful, inexpensive alternative that provides a very good user experience.