Nexus plus Project Fi: Should you sign up for Google's wireless service?

Some real-world perspective on Google's unusual new wireless service and how it works with the Nexus 5X and 6P.

Nexus 5X, 6P, Project Fi
JR Raphael, IDG

So, you're thinking about buying one of Google's new Nexus phones. Once you figure out whether the Nexus 5X or 6P makes more sense for you, you've got one more choice to consider: Do you stick with your current carrier or move to Google's own multi-network wireless service?

That service is Project Fi -- Google's grand attempt at making the world of mobile connectivity a little less painful. Fi taps into a combination of T-Mobile, Sprint, and reliable Wi-Fi networks (with a secure VPN connection to safeguard your data) in order to give you the best possible signal wherever you are.

It's a pretty interesting concept, to say the least -- and if you're getting one of Google's Nexus phones, you're in a small club of people who are able to use it. So far, Project Fi is compatible only with last year's Nexus 6 and this year's Nexus 5X and 6P. Given the service's still-limited state of operation -- and, you know, the way Google tends to do things -- it also requires an invite to sign up. (You can request one from the Fi website; it'll probably take anywhere from a few weeks to a month to arrive.)

I've been trying out Project Fi as I've been living with the new Nexus phones these past couple weeks (for more on the devices themselves, see my in-depth review and 5X vs. 6P buying guide). Here are some thoughts on how things have been going -- and for whom the service might make sense.

[UPDATE: Project Fi, six months later...]

Getting to know Project Fi

The first thing that strikes you when setting up Project Fi is how refreshingly simple the service seems compared to the typical carrier mess we've all grown used to. This is evident from the second you get started: If you're porting in an existing cell number, you provide the details on the Project Fi site while requesting your SIM card. Once the SIM card arrives, all you do is pop it in your phone and tap the notification that appears on your screen a moment later.

Since you already entered the info about your current provider into Fi's system, there's not much else to do beyond tapping "Okay" a few times and letting the number transfer take place. Google does all the dirty work for you -- which, as anyone who's ever attempted a number port with a traditional carrier knows, is a welcomed change from the way that process normally takes place (something best described as "migraine-inducing brain torture").

If you use Google Voice, as I do, things are a little different. You have the option to transfer in your existing Google Voice number or to drop those digits and get a new number. I transferred in my existing number, which was easy as can be. Fi gives you most of the main features you're used to with GV, though you do lose a few things along the way. (See my separate Project Fi-Google Voice FAQ for much more on that subject. There's a lot to be said about it -- and the existing documentation is pretty limited and confusing.)

Either way, once your number's all set, that's more or less it: Your new service is up and running -- and from that point forward, everything just works.

Understanding Project Fi

I should back up a minute to talk a bit more about the Project Fi plan -- and yes, that's singular on purpose: Fi has just one plan, and it's unusually simple. You pay 20 bucks a month for the basic service, which includes unlimited domestic minutes and unlimited texts (both domestic and international). Everyone starts with that same basic setup.

On top of that, you pay $10 a month for every gig of mobile data you use. You decide up front how many gigs you want to prepay for, but that number almost doesn't matter -- because ultimately, Fi charges you only for the data you actually use.

So let's say you set up your service to include 1GB of mobile data, which would make your starting bill $30 ($20 for the basic service + $10 for 1GB of data). If you end up using only half a gig of data for the entire month, you'll get a $5 credit back for the unused portion that'll be applied toward your next bill. There are no tricky rounding games, either: Fi goes out a full three decimal places in its calculations, so if you pay for 1GB and use 0.645GB, you'd get $3.55 back in credit.

At the same time, if you end up needing more data than you prepaid for, you don't have to deal with any obnoxious overage charges or complicated "plan refilling" processes: You just use what you need to use, and Fi will charge you the following month for exactly how much you went over your prepaid allotment. Mobile hotspot use is treated the same, too; it's all just part of your monthly data pool. How you use it is up to you.

I should note that data also counts the same whether you're here in the U.S. or traveling internationally -- provided you're in one of Fi's 120(ish) supported countries. So if you're in Australia, Canada, China, France, or even the Isle of Man (the Isle of Man? Really? I had no idea that was even a place), your phone will work just like it normally does and you won't pay anything extra for data. Of course, the speeds do vary from place to place, so you may be stuck with 3G-level connections in some locales.

International voice minutes are available in those same countries, too, but they come at an added cost (which varies from one country to the next).

The Fi network situation

The foundation of Fi is the service's intelligent multi-network switching. While in America, your phone picks the strongest network available for both data use and voice calls and automatically routes everything accordingly. You generally don't even know what network you're on or when things have changed; it all just happens behind the scenes, completely seamlessly, as needed.

For me, this has resulted in service that's pretty comparable with and probably even a bit better than what I had before. I've been using one of T-Mobile's prepaid plans for years now, and T-Mobile's coverage is generally quite good where I live (and in most of the places where I occasionally travel). So with Fi, I'm getting that same coverage -- plus the ability to fall back on Sprint or a reliable Wi-Fi network whenever T-Mobile isn't the strongest option.

In practice, I haven't noticed any meaningful difference. Fi does show you when your phone is connected to a Wi-Fi network as opposed to a cellular network (via an icon in your phone's upper-right corner), so I know it's routed my calls and data through Wi-Fi in at least a few places -- like at my home and in my gym. If not for that icon, though, I would never even realize that was happening.

An example: One day, I started a call while I was at my house -- and thus having all of my calls and data routed through Wi-Fi instead of any cellular network. I got into my car and drove away, thus leaving the range of my home's Wi-Fi network. The call continued uninterrupted as the phone quietly transitioned off of it and onto one of the cellular networks. (There's no way to know for sure which one, but based on my knowledge of T-Mobile and Sprint coverage in my area, I'm guessing it was T-Mobile.)

The connection remained fine the entire time, with no noticeable change in audio quality and not so much as a blip in the line. Like I said, everything's seamless and it just works; even with that kind of active network switching, I had no indication anything out of the ordinary was going on.

Oh, and any data used over a Wi-Fi network -- even when Fi automatically connects you to one without your realizing it -- doesn't count toward your monthly mobile data usage. The service actively tries to get you to spend less money, in other words, which is a weird feeling when you've been trained to expect shameless penny-grabbing at every possible turn from your wireless carrier.

Fi software and support

Speaking of unfortunate customer experiences, you know how dealing with most carriers is basically a nightmare? Whether navigating through their horrific websites or -- bless your poor soul -- calling into their customer support lines, it's usually damn near impossible to manage your account or get help without having a nervous breakdown.

Fi is pretty much the polar opposite. The service's app and website continue the theme of simplicity, with a clutter-free interface showing your data usage for the current cycle along with your billing and plan info. You can configure Google Voice-style call forwarding -- in which calls to your Fi number ring other phones in addition to your primary cell -- and you can get alerts when you're getting close to exceeding your prepaid data allotment and moving into extra-payment-requiring terrain.

Nexus 5X, 6P, Project Fi app

Voicemail, meanwhile, is integrated right into the Android Phone app on these Nexus devices. You can see text transcriptions of messages there and play the audio either out loud or through the phone's earpiece. You can also access voicemails in Hangouts on any device or computer where you're signed in. Texting is handled entirely via Hangouts, meanwhile, which means you can access your messages from any device as well -- which is pretty darn handy.

One last software-related point worth mentioning: The Fi app and website offer the ability to get 24/7 support from a real person via phone, chat, or email. Every time I've checked, a person has been available either instantly or within a minute or two with the phone and chat options. Email usually seems to show a response time of up to a few hours. I tried the phone-based support once and was pleasantly surprised with how, well, not unpleasant of an experience it was.

Once I requested assistance, the agent called me, so I didn't wait even a minute on hold or deal with any annoying layers of barely functional voice-controlled menus. She was friendly and helpful, too -- and even spoke clear English (always a plus!). I can only hope that same standard continues as Fi expands and gets more customers.

Putting it all together...

All in all, Fi's been a great experience for me. I haven't used it long enough yet to comment on its long-term value, but it certainly seems promising. So promising, in fact, that my wife and I decided to move her phone over to Fi from her previous $45/mo. Straight Talk plan (she just got a Nexus 5X, if you haven't been following along).

With as much time as the two of us spend in places that have strong Wi-Fi connections, I wouldn't be surprised if we could both manage to have bills around or even under $30 a month much of the time with Project Fi's setup. That'll include unlimited minutes, the ability to use a hotspot as needed, and the ability to have more data whenever we need it without jumping through hoops or paying an arm and a leg. No other plan out there offers that kind of flexibility or value.

(For me, the bit about having more data when I need it would be crucial, as there are some months when I'm traveling and end up using far more data than I do at home. The question is whether my average bill over the course of a year would still be a good value compared to what I'm paying now. I suspect it would, but I can't say for sure without using Fi over a longer period of time and actually finding out.)

So would Fi make sense for you? The first thing you have to ask yourself is how much mobile data you typically go through. If you're using an Android phone right now, it's easy to figure out: Just head into your system settings and tap 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 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 $4.31 on my first-month bill of $40 -- but none of the superfluous made-up charges other carriers love to throw in.

(I did some comparisons with a bunch of different popular plans back when Fi was first announced, by the way, if you want to get a general idea of how it looks compared to other carriers' offerings.)

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 have 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.

If you've got good coverage from either or both carriers, though, and think the math makes sense for your needs, I wouldn't hesitate to give Project Fi a whirl. It's a type of service and value you won't find anywhere else, with a lot of compelling perks -- and a refreshing lack of common carrier silliness.

[Project Fi revisited: 6 months with Google's weird wireless service]

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