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Update: 1 March, 2017.
Several aspects of Google Fi have improved since launch day. It now uses U.S. Cellular as well as Sprint and T-Mobile networks in the US, and speed caps have been removed for international data. It’s no longer invite-only, you can now use it in 135+ countries, and it’s available on Google’s Nexus 5x, 6p and Pixel phones as well.
It’s become a viable option for those who regularly travel overseas, and we did a full review of Google Fi for travellers here.
As we mentioned in our newsletter a few days ago, rumours have been flying about Google entering the cellular service market in the US.
Sure enough, the search giant announced the details of “Project Fi” yesterday . While there wasn’t anything wildly different to what most experts had been predicting, there were plenty of interesting features for travellers.
The big question, as always, is: should you care?
What’s the Story?
Google has partnered with two of the smaller cell providers in the US, T-Mobile and Sprint, to offer its service. You’ll automatically get a 4G signal from whichever company’s tower happens to be nearby, or switch over to Wi-Fi if that’s a better option.
In theory, you won’t even notice — you’ll still get your calls, texts and data service regardless. How well it works in practice remains to be seen, but having three different ways of getting service is a novel approach.
Unlike other providers, Google is offering precisely one plan, with one option. The base service will cost $20/month, you’ll get unlimited local calls and texts and cheap international rates while in the US. In 120+ other countries, calls cost 20c/minute to anywhere, and SMS doesn’t cost any extra.
If you want data (and let’s face it, most of us do), you’ll pay an extra ten dollars per gigabyte. That’s also available internationally, at the same price.
Thirty bucks a month for cheap calls, free texts and a gigabyte of data usable around much of the world is the best roaming deal you’ll find, especially since you get a rebate on any unused data. As an example, if you only use 500MB of that gigabyte you paid for, you’ll get five dollars credited towards the next month’s bill.
Some other carriers already let you carry unused data over to the next month, but getting money off your next bill is even better.
Just like Google Voice, your phone number lives in the cloud. This means you can call, text and check voicemail from any iOS or Android device, and anything running a desktop Chrome browser. You can, unsurprisingly, move your existing number across to Google’s service.
What’s the Catch?
As usual, though, there are catches. The biggest one, at least for the moment, is that the vast majority of people aren’t going to be able to use the service. Unless you’re one of the few who’ve bought a Nexus 6 smartphone, you’re out of luck right now — that’s the only device that you can use Google Fi on.
This will change in the future, but until then, most potential customers will be just that: potential customers.
The other major downside, of course, is that this is US-only for now. While you can roam around most of the world, you’ll get nothing out of this announcement if you’re not based within the service’s coverage area. Will that change? Maybe, but there’s no sign of it right now.
Cellular data speeds will also be limited to 256KB while overseas. That’s totally fine for email, maps and social media, but you won’t want to be watching videos with those kind of speeds. Finally, Project Fi is currently open by invitation only. With no word on how many invites are available, you may be waiting a while to get onboard.
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So Should You Care?
Right now, Project Fi is an experiment, not a product that’s ready for prime time. With such limited availability, it isn’t going to be setting the world on fire no matter how cheap it is or how many cool features it has.
At the moment, unless you’re one of the few that fit the criteria for signing up, there’s little reason to care about this announcement at all. Even if you could switch over, there isn’t necessarily enough in Project Fi to make you bother unless you regularly travel internationally.
For me, the interesting part isn’t the specifics of the service right now, it’s what it will look like in a year or two. Truly pay-as-you-go data, no extra cost for roaming and no longer having your phone number tied to a particular device are all features that at least a certain subset of mobile customers really want.
If their current cell provider won’t provide them, Google or another upstart will be more than happy to do so instead. Large cell companies that currently rip off their subscribers for roaming and data should be looking nervously over their shoulders. The mobile landscape is changing, and Project Fi is just the beginning.
Do you care about Project Fi? If it was available to you, would you switch?
Images via Google