Google is positioning its new service, Project Fi, as an alternative to traditional phone carriers. It provides some nice perks for mobile business users, including unlimited international messaging, simplified billing and — depending on your usage — the chance to save some money with a cheaper, more flexible data plan.
Here's a rundown of how Project Fi works, including five reasons to give it a go, and five reasons to avoid it.
How does it work?
In a nutshell, Project Fi is a phone carrier service from Google that relies on a special SIM card to authenticate the use of mobile data from three existing mobile networks (T-Mobile, Sprint and U.S. Cellular). It switches among these networks automatically to provide the best possible service based on your current location. It's meant to be easy to use, with a simple setup: Just swap out your phone's current SIM card with a Google Fi card. It also features simplified billing that lets you pay only for the data you use.
Whereas other carriers offer a long list of confusing data plans, Google Fi has just one plan. You pay $20 per month for unlimited talk and texts, with additional charges for data at a flat rate of $10 per gigabyte. At the beginning of each month, you estimate how much data you'll use, and pay for it.
At the end of the month, you'll be refunded for any data you didn't use. For example, if you paid for 1GB but used only half of that, you'll get $5 back. Similarly, you'll be charged for extra data on your next bill if you went over the allotted data — but you'll never be charged overage fees that don't match up with the actual data used.
Note that only a handful of smartphones are compatible with Project Fi right now, and all of them are Google phones. They include the Pixel and Pixel XL (set to launch next week), as well as the Nexus 5X and Nexus 6P. If you have a Samsung phone (or other Android phone) or iPhone, you won't be able to get Project Fi, at least right now.
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Why would I want it?
Switching from an established mobile carrier to a lesser-known service such as Project Fi might sound risky. Here are five reasons small businesses might like it.
- You travel a lot. If your work sends you trekking across the globe, or simply requires you to communicate internationally, then Project Fi offers a few perks. The service works in 135 countries by default, with no need to change out your SIM card or purchase a special international data plan. There's no extra cost for international data usage or text messaging, and no steep roaming fees. International calling is available at a flat rate, with lower rates if you call over Wi-Fi, and Wi-Fi calling back to the U.S. is free if you're abroad.
But note that although there are no extra roaming costs for using data internationally, you're limited to 3G speeds, which is quite a bit slower than the 4G speeds you get in the U.S.
- You want to save money. With Project Fi, you pay only for the data that you actually use. If most of your time is spent on Wi-Fi at home and in the office, the service could save you money.
- You're busy. Running your business is already complicated enough. Project Fi is incredibly simple, so you don't have to worry about complex plans, data caps or two-year obligations. Plus, you don't have to deal with a pushy salesperson — just sign up online.
- You're part of a small team. Project Fi lets you add up to five people to your plan for just $15 per month. You can manage your account, track data usage and pay your bills in one place. That's convenient for when you want to add a work phone to your family plan or add employees to your small business's plan. In comparison, both Verizon and AT&T charge $20 per month to connect an additional phone to your plan.
- You work outside the office: Project Fi lets you use your smartphone as a secure Wi-Fi hotspot for your laptop computer, without any extra fees.
Why should I avoid it?
Project Fi has some obvious downsides that make it a niche service. Here are five reasons to steer clear of it.
- Coverage is (relatively) limited. If you're on Verizon or AT&T, you probably get a pretty good mobile signal no matter where you go. Both carriers offer some of the best coverage in the country. Project Fi runs on a group of smaller networks, dynamically switching among them to give you the best coverage available in your current location, but only from those three carriers.
If you live on the coast or in a big city, you can probably expect pretty good service. But if you live in a more rural area — or simply travel to one — you might find yourself with a relatively spotty, slow connection. Check out Google's coverage map to see where coverage is likely to be the strongest.
- The selection of compatible phones is very limited. Love your Samsung smartphone? Then Project Fi might not be for you. The service only supports smartphones released by Google, including the Nexus 5X, Nexus 6P and the soon-to-be-released Pixel and Pixel XL. Those are nice smartphones, especially because they'll be the first to get new Android operating system updates in the future. But buyers who want to stick to their current brand — or just aren't ready to upgrade their existing device — are out of luck.
- It might not save you money. If you use less than 2GB of data per month, Project Fi might save you money on a monthly basis. But some mobile business users, especially frequent travelers, can eat through a lot of data in a short period.
For example, if you use 3GB of data, your bill will be $50 for the month. That's $5 more than the basic monthly plans from either Verizon or AT&T, each of which gives you 3GB of data per month for $45. And both Verizon and AT&T provide a stronger overall network for faster internet speeds. T-Mobile is even cheaper, with prepaid plans that include 3GB for $40.
- You’re rarely on Wi-Fi: Project Fi is great when you spend most of your time connected to Wi-Fi. That ensures a strong local internet connection and keeps your data usage low. If you spend most of your time out in the field, though, you're going to gobble up data in a hurry, and you may or may not get a great connection, depending on your location.
- You'll have to monitor it closely. With no real data cap on your plan, you'll have to monitor your data usage closely, ensuring you don't go over your planned allotment, in order to save money with Project Fi. That can be distracting, and potentially anxiety-inducing. Imagine 10 cents disappearing from your bank account after a few minutes of browsing the web, and you get the idea. If you'd rather pay a lump sum and not worry about it, a standard carrier plan might be a better fit for you.
Project Fi does include a data-monitoring app that will help you keep tabs on the amount of data you've used, and it can even send alerts when you're reaching your planned limit. That may help provide some peace of mind.
The bottom line
Project Fi started out as an experiment by Google, but it's grown into a solid wireless service for a certain kind of business user. It's easy to sign up and easy to use. And if you're a penny-pincher who wants to save a bit of money and doesn't use a lot of data, it may be worth a look. Just know that, depending on your location, you could get a slower, less reliable internet connection and save only $5 to $10 per month for all your trouble.
Business travelers might like Project Fi as well. For starters, you get free, unlimited international text messaging. Plus, you can use data in 135 countries internationally, with no roaming fees and no need to swap SIM cards, though you'll be limited to a much slower 3G connection.
Project Fi offers some unique perks that you won't find on any of the major networks. But workers who use a lot of data, or who just can't be bothered to ration data to save a few bucks, are probably better off sticking with an established carrier.