Let's face it: Mobile phone carriers kind of suck.
Some of them are better than others, to be sure. And most have gotten a little less bad over the years -- almost even bordering on the point of "not too terrible," in some cases. But by and large, carriers are right up there with airlines in terms of the levels of warm-and-fuzzy feelings they inspire (not to mention the number of absurd surcharges they tack on at every possible turn).
The smaller-fry prepaid carriers provide a great way to skirt the sky-high bills and sneaky fees that tend to come with big carrier territory, but they're often accompanied by their own sets of compromises -- things like restrictions on hotspot use and a second-level-of-hell-caliber customer service experience.
So what if there were a better way -- a carrier that'd cut all the crap and just give you good service at a reasonable rate, without any annoying asterisks?
That's what Google set out to create with its unusual Project Fi service. The question is if it actually delivers -- and that's something I've been evaluating for the past six months.
Project Fi in day-to-day life
Project Fi has actually been around for almost a year now. The service launched in a limited beta last April, though with the hulking Nexus 6 as its only supported phone at the time, it wasn't much of a realistic option for most people.
With support expanding to include the newer Nexus 5X and Nexus 6P last fall, Fi suddenly had a much more compelling sell on its hands. After deciding to purchase a 6P for myself, I made the call to leave my $30/mo. T-Mobile prepaid plan behind and give Project Fi a whirl.
My wife got a 5X for herself, and so we moved her off of her $45/mo. Straight Talk prepaid plan and onto Fi as well. With no contracts to our names, we were officially a fee-free Fi (fo fum) family -- and boy, did it feel fine.
From the get-go, Fi was refreshingly simple. Once you get your Project Fi SIM in the mail, all you do is pop the card into your phone, follow a few on-screen prompts, and then wait a few minutes while Google handles all the behind-the-scenes gobbledygook involved with porting your number and establishing your service. It's a far cry from the root-canal-reminiscent way that process usually goes down.
(I used Google Voice, which made the move to Fi a little more complicated -- as the two services share the same underlying technology, and you can't technically use them in tandem. That forces you to make some tricky transitional decisions, but once those are behind you, it's mostly all gravy. See my Project Fi-Google Voice FAQ for a much more detailed look at that situation.)
Project Fi's calling card, so to speak, is the fact that it taps into multiple networks for your service: Sprint, T-Mobile, or a public Wi-Fi network, depending on which offers the best connectivity at any given moment. But using Fi in day-to-day life, you really don't ever think about that. In fact, aside from the Wi-Fi part of it -- which causes a special icon to appear in the status bar whenever it's active -- you never even know when your phone is moving from one provider to another. It just silently and seamlessly switches as needed to give you the strongest possible connection wherever you are.
That setup has been great for both me and m'lady. We rarely have instances where either of us is without a solid connection, and the multinetwork system is so well executed that we forget it's even a factor. We both used plans that relied on T-Mobile's network before, so Fi gives us basically that same coverage -- only with the added presence of Sprint and Wi-Fi to fill in any weaker areas.
I wondered at first whether the use of public Wi-Fi in place of a mobile network would lead to shaky connections, since -- let's face it -- a lot of places offer Wi-Fi that's less than spectacular. But after six months, I've yet to encounter any noticeable issues. Google's Project Fi "Network" page says the company uses only networks that are "verified as fast and reliable," and while I have no idea how true that claim is (c'mon -- did Google really evaluate the Wi-Fi network at my stanky old gym?), I've yet to run into a problem.
Oh, and all data is automatically encrypted whenever you're on a public Wi-Fi connection, incidentally -- so security isn't something you have to worry about.
Where that setup really pays off is in the monthly bill: Remember, whenever I'm in a place with a public Wi-Fi network, my phone automatically uses that network instead of mobile data for all Internet use and calls. And since Fi charges only for the mobile data that's actually used in any given month, the service is essentially always working to help me spend less money.
A wireless carrier...trying to get customers to fork over less cash? What world is this?!
Fi and my finances
Speaking of Fi's fees (fo fums), everyone on Fi follows the same basic plan: Twenty bucks a month for the basic service, which includes unlimited texts and voice minutes, plus $10 a month for every gig of mobile data you use. You decide how many gigs you want to pay for up front, but it ultimately doesn't matter -- because if you end up using less than what you paid for, Google will give you a credit back for the full unused amount on your next month's bill.
I started out with 2GB of mobile data for a base total of $40/mo., but I quickly realized that with the automatic Wi-Fi use factored in, I was rarely going over the 1GB mark in a single month. So rather than paying more and getting a credit back every time, I just moved myself down to the 1GB level -- which is also where my wife started.
That shift worked out well for me: Most months, I end up being around or slightly under the 1GB mark. Every now and then, I go over it -- but the nice thing there is that unlike most penny-hungry carriers, Fi doesn't charge an arm and a leg for data overages; it just charges that same $10/GB rate and adds any amount beyond your prepaid allotment onto your next month's bill. Mobile hotspot use is treated the same way, too. You're paying for the data; how you use it is up to you.
So that being said, I've ended up paying an average of $32.23 per month for my service over the past six months (and that's including taxes and a small set of basic "regulatory fees"). That's almost exactly what I was paying per month with my old T-Mobile prepaid plan, which limited me to just 100 minutes of talk time and didn't include Fi's various perks. I'll almost certainly have random spikes with my data use in the future, especially when traveling, but my low baseline-level use should allow the service to remain a spectacular deal for me when averaged out over time.
The same is even more true for my wife, whose Fi bill has averaged out to $29.05 (taxes and fees included) over the past six months. That works out far better for her than her former $45/mo. (plus taxes and fees) Straight Talk setup, which had all sorts of restrictions along with horrible customer service that made it a real pain to manage.
A few Fi footnotes
Basics aside, Fi has a few uncommon features that are worth mentioning. First is international roaming: As long as you're in one of Fi's 120(ish) supported countries, your phone automatically works the same way it does at home (albeit with the potential for slower speeds, depending on where you are). You just pay the regular $10/GB rate for data -- none of the outrageous ripoffs most carriers stick you with when you travel abroad.
That isn't something my family has had the opportunity to take advantage of in the past six months (baby -- remember?), but it's nice to know it's there if and when we need it.
Another intriguing option is the ability to get a data-only SIM that connects to your Fi account and taps into your same pool of data (with the same $10/GB rate). I'm tempted to snag an LTE-enabled tablet and have this as an option for traveling, but I haven't convinced myself (or, ahem, m'lady) that we actually need yet another touchscreen device sitting around the house just yet.
[UPDATE (9/1/16): Scratch that. I'm now using the data-only SIM option in an unconventional way -- and it's fantastically useful.]
Fi gives you native visual voicemail, which conveniently exists right within the Phone app on Nexus devices. It also makes it easy to access your voicemails and text messages from any Android device or computer; all you do is open up Hangouts from whatever system you're using, and all your stuff is right there -- always synced and available, without any third-party apps or hacks required.
Last but not least, Fi's customer support is -- and I don't say this lightly -- actually a pretty good experience. While most carriers' apps, websites, and call centers make you want to bludgeon yourself with the nearest blunt object, Fi's app and website are refreshingly simple and easy to use. And if you need extra help, both interfaces offer the ability to get 24/7 support from a real person via phone or email.
On the phone front, there's usually little to no waiting -- and once you request a call, the agent actually calls you. That means no awful hold music, no labyrinth of barely functional voice-controlled menus, and no hours of sitting and waiting for a robot-like nimwit to come on the line and test your last remaining shred of patience.
It's like a wireless carrier bizarro world -- which, I think, is a good way to sum up the Project Fi experience in general.
Some Fi-nal thoughts
All right -- so that's been my experience with Project Fi over the past six months. The question you have to ask yourself is whether Fi would also make sense for you -- and your answer may or may not be the same as mine.
The first thing to consider is how much mobile data you actually use in a typical month. If you have an Android phone in front of you, it's easy to figure out: Just head into your system settings and look for the "Data usage" option. There, you'll see a summary of your mobile data usage for the past couple of months.
Use that as a gauge, and do some simple math. At $20 plus $10 per gig of mobile data used, would your monthly total come out to be less than you're paying now? Be sure to factor in all the various fees and other nonsense your current carrier tacks onto the total, as that's an important part of the equation. With Fi, you'll have the basic state, county, and city taxes along with a few mandated federal fees -- a grand total of four bucks and change on my average monthly bill -- but none of the superfluous made-up charges other carriers love to throw in.
If you're consistently using a ton of mobile data each month -- and you aren't in areas where Fi's public Wi-Fi use would make a meaningful dent in that total -- then Project Fi likely won't add up to be beneficial for you. But if your data hovers around the 1GB to 3GB mark, Fi could definitely be worth considering. Don't forget to weigh in the value of benefits like penalty- and hassle-free data overages, built-in hotspot use, fee-free international roaming, and fee-free use of additional data-connected devices -- however much any of those may mean to you.
Provided things look promising on the financial front, think next about how T-Mobile and Sprint's coverage is where you live (and/or where you spend a fair amount of your time, if you travel frequently). Asking friends and family is always a good way to start, or you can use a crowd-sourced service like OpenSignal to get a broad visual idea.
If neither T-Mobile nor Sprint has solid service where you are -- if, for instance, you're in a rural area where only AT&T or Verizon get reliable signals -- you should probably think twice about proceeding with Project Fi. The ability to use Wi-Fi networks to fill in the gaps of coverage is great, but you don't want to be relying on that for your primary connection and left in the dark the rest of the time.
And, of course, you'll need to think carefully about your phone. Project Fi is currently compatible only with Nexus devices, so if you don't have and don't want the Nexus 5X or 6P, everything else about the service is irrelevant.
What I can tell you is that for me and my family, Fi has been fantastic. We're spending less and getting more than ever before, with a service that's more flexible and has fewer annoyances than anything else out there. Sneaky fees, nickel-and-dime add-ons, and shoddy customer service are all distant memories of wireless nightmares past.
For once, our mobile phone carrier doesn't suck. In fact, we actually like it. And that, my friends, is worth a lot.