Google’s Foray into Cell Phone Service: Project Fi

Google has an interesting approach to attracting more users: get more people connected and online.  Their feeling (and rightly so) is that more users connected to the internet means more queries on Google search, more gmailers, and growth in their other offerings.  As they “max out” their market share and compete with Bing to gain a few percentage points here and there, the next best thing they can do is simply bring more people connectivity.  As such, they’ve launched a new cell phone service called Project Fi, available today for Nexus 6 phones only — for now.  You can request an invitation on Google’s site.

Before I jump into the details of the plans, let’s talk a little more about why Google is doing this.  Sure, getting more users online is going to naturally add Google searches, but Google wouldn’t go through all this trouble just for another couple thousand data points in search — it’s just a drop in the bucket.  Though Google has Android OS (which is able to track data usage anonymously from a variety of sources), being able to close the gap and control both the coverage and the software gives Google full insight into a mobile user’s activity.  Even with a small sample size, the data they gather  here will surely be incorporated into their other services.  It’s also likely not a coincedence that mobilegeddon and the launch of Project Fi happened just one day apart!

So, what are the applications for SEM?  For right now – nothing, but I’d surmise that within a few months we may see tighter targeting options and additional features specifically around mobile devices.  Without further ado, let’s jump into the nitty-gritty of what Project Fi offers:


Unsurprisingly, Google’s pricing blows the competition out of the water, but I wouldn’t count on prices to stay low — more on this later.  The plan is simple and straightforward:

Unlimited text and talk: $20/mo (required)
One Gigabyte of Data: $10/mo
Tax: Varies by state, about 10-20% of bill
Fees: No setup/cancellation fees

The icing on the cake is that any unused data from each gigabyte will be refunded.  For example, if you use 0.5GB of data, the cost will only be $5.  This is a stark contrast to most cell providers who bill you the full GB cost as soon as you exceed your data threshold.  I should also note that wi-fi tethering is included in your data and not an additional charge like you’d find with the likes of AT&T.


Cell Networks, Encryption & Speed

Google (for now) is piggybacking off of T-Mobile, Sprint and Wi-Fi networks for service.  This means anywhere these two networks have coverage, Project Fi will too.  You can also view a full coverage map to see where signal is strongest.  So what about talking over public Wi-Fi, is it safe?  Users on reddit have pointed out that Android 5.1 included a VPN feature — this will presumably allow encrypted tunneling of voice/data for Project Fi users.

I believe that Google has chosen only to launch this on Nexus 6 devices for now due to the “optimization” required for signal hopping between Sprint, T-Mo and Wi-Fi.  They state that “Our software is optimized to not put extra strain on your battery by only moving you between networks when absolutely necessary.”  Additionally, the Nexus 6 will need a special SIM card that can access both networks.

In terms of speed, you can still expect to take advantage of 4G LTE, and when that’s unavailable, 3G or 2G.


Cool Google Features

  1. You can optionally link your phone to Google hangouts/gmail to send/receive calls and texts from your computer — neat!
  2. Sync: you can opt-in to have texts synced across devices so if you delete a text on say, your tablet, it will also be deleted on your phone.
  3. Network Quality DB: When connecting to open, free Wi-Fi, Google will determine when to use that over a cell signal based on historical quality data.
  4. Wi-Fi->Cell Transition: If you start a call on Wi-Fi and leave the signal area, the call will transition automatically to a cell phone network.  Note that even on Wi-Fi, international calls are charged a fee.  You can view rates by country on the Project Fi site.

International Usage

Google currently has a list of 120 countries in which you can use your data without roaming fees.  Texting is also free in these countries, but calls cost 20 cents per minute.  If you’re outside of the listed 120 countries, you will still need to purchase a local SIM card to get any coverage/usage at all.  So please do check before traveling!

Will Goldfarb About the author
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