One of the annoyances of modern telecommunications technology is its penchant for having inadequate coverage or dead spots in areas other than the major metropolitan areas. When traveling with family and friends, who in aggregate have smart phones and other devices from T-Mobile, AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint, the one constancy is that we all do not have the same level and degree of broadband wireless coverage at any given time. For example on a recent trip through the Piney Woods to a final destination in northern Louisiana, we had two of the above carriers represented in the car, and while both services each had some data connectivity during most of the trip, at different locations only one or the other had data connectivity, with several areas of dead spots for both. The data connection results from the Louisiana trip somewhat matched the varying degree of connectivity we had with multiple carriers on an earlier trip through central and southern Mississippi by way of southern Louisiana. It has become obvious to us that there are distinct qualitative gaps and coverage dead spots in each of the individual carriers’ coverage, often in contradiction to those carriers online coverage maps.
Google, well known as an innovative technology organization, is now making available in much of the country a “new” wireless phone service that may potentially reduce the number of dead spots and weak signal strength areas. Google’s new “Project Fi”, originally announced earlier this year, is now starting to offer more “invitations” to sign up for its service which currently combines the 4G LTE networks of T-Mobile and Sprint, along with over a million high quality Wi-Fi hotspots, thus greatly improving cellular coverage, as the combination of coverage from multiple carriers is synergistic. The Google Project Fi system automatically and seamlessly connects to, and switches between, whatever mode of connection and carrier provides the strongest and fastest connection at that instant. If a participating 4G LTE network is unavailable at any particular location, Project Fi will then automatically attempt to seamlessly connect the user to the next fastest available network which may provide service at 3G or 2G speeds. According to Google, “Through new technology developed with our partners, Project Fi puts you on the best available network between Wi-Fi and two 4G LTE networks. This means you get access to more cell towers and 4G LTE in more places.”
Project Fi connected smart devices can also place and receive calls and text messages, as well as access data, when connected to any of the more than one million participating Wi-Fi hotspots. Google has identified over a million Wi-Fi hotspots that it has determined to be fast and reliable, with Project Fi connected phones utilizing these hotspots whenever possible in order to minimize any wireless data charges, as there is no charge for data or other usage when connected to Wi-Fi. The integrated communications hardware built into Project Fi compatible phones and smart devices will seamlessly “hand off” calls and data connections between cellular providers and Wi-Fi hotspots, depending on location, speed, and signal strength. In order to properly secure the Wi-Fi connection when utilized, Project Fi and its compatible hardware devices automatically encrypt all of the user’s data while on a hotspot, thus creating a secure connection generally safe from eavesdroppers and hackers. This Wi-Fi connection is especially secure, because in the words of Google, “When Project Fi automatically connects you to an open Wi-Fi network, we help protect your data by sending it through a secure connection, known as a Virtual Private Network (VPN). This secure connection protects your data from being looked at by other users on the open Wi-Fi network.”
For those who may own multiple compatible devices (a selling point not lost on Google), any device that supports the Google Hangouts app can also be used to send and receive calls, text messages, and video text messages over the Project Fi connected device. Currently, most Android devices (tablets and smart phones), iPhones, iPads, iPod Touch, Mac powered computers, Windows computers, and Chromebooks can utilize their own native versions of the Google Hangouts app to access the system. Users of the Gmail email service can also send and receive texts from a widget in Gmail when using a computer. Project Fi will automatically synch the appropriate message content between all connected devices. All domestic texts and calls placed from any connected device through Project Fi are free, but there may be a nominal charge for international calls and texts.
For those interested in signing up for service with Google’s Project Fi, an invitation can be requested through the link on any of the Project Fi websites, or directly from fi.google.com. Prior to sending an invitation to the user, Project Fi checks for local availability at the user’s zip code, and is currently sending out only a limited number of invitations as the network is being developed and expanded. I had actually applied for a Project Fi invitation about 6 weeks ago, and just received my invitation a few days ago. While I would really like to try the service, I do not (yet) have a compatible smart phone, as the only readily available primary devices are a few of the Nexus models, notably the recent models manufactured for Nexus by Motorola (some of the Nexus 5 and 6 models), and the newly released Nexus models manufactured by Huawei and LG. While most of the Nexus branded phones sold directly by Google are unlocked and will work on many of the major domestic and international carriers, only a few of the newer models will work on the Project Fi system. Specifically, Project Fi currently requires a Nexus 6, Nexus 6P, or a Nexus 5X, which are available directly from Google (store.google.com/category/phones) in the $350 to $650 range (no contract), but are also available from several online third party sellers at deeply discounted prices. Personally, I am strongly considering purchasing one of the Project Fi compatible, Motorola manufactured Nexus 6 phones with 32 GB of internal memory for slightly less than $300, or the similar model with 64 GB of internal memory for under $350. While these phones are fully compatible with my current cellular provider by simply inserting my current SIM card into the phone, I would more likely use the new Nexus phone with the Project Fi provided SIM card which will allow access to what Google calls its “Network of Networks”. At present, these are the only phones supported by Project Fi, while it is likely that others manufacturers will be offering Project Fi compatible phones in the future. While all of the recent Nexus phones are running the latest version of Android, and are typically the first to receive any Android updates and upgrades, the radio hardware incorporated in these Project Fi phones is what makes them different than their competitors, regardless of operating system. These particular models of Nexus phones are unique in that they utilize a cellular radio that can contact the towers of several different carriers, utilizing several different cellular protocols; Google describes this in simple terms, ” … imagine if your car radio only supported AM or FM radio instead of both!”
Some of the early reviews of the Project Fi wireless service have claimed that it is generally among the lowest cost providers of unlimited text and talk phone service, with users only paying for the cellular high speed data that they actually use, recognizing that any data access over Wi-Fi networks is always free of charge. Google offers Project Fi with what it calls its “One Simple Plan” with no contract, which for $20 per month (plus the inevitable taxes) includes, ” … unlimited domestic talk and text, unlimited international texts, Wi-Fi tethering to use your phone as a hotspot, and access cellular coverage in 120+ countries.” Cellular data carries an additional “budgeted” fee of $10 per GB per month for data over a cellular network (Wi-Fi data is always free), but the user only pays for the cellular data actually used; any data overage collected in any month is automatically credited the next month. When opening a Project Fi account, the user sets a cellular data budget, which at $10 per GB, is billed on a monthly basis. Any overage is promptly credited, as explained by Google, “If your data usage at the end of the month is less than your data budget, you’ll get a credit for approximately one cent per MB. For example, if your data budget is 2GB and you use 1.265GB, you’ll get a $7.35 credit. … if your data budget is 3GB and you use 2.2GB, you’ll get $8 (for 800MB of unused data) to use next month to lower your bill.” In my opinion, this is a very fair system of determining cellular data charges, making it often more economical than the fees charged by other carriers, as many of their users end up paying for data that they never use; my current data plan with another major carrier includes 10GB of data which I pay for every month whether I use it all or not, but in reality I only use a tiny portion of that data most months. Potentially, Project Fi could be a significant money saver for me.
At present, the $20 per month no-contract, unlimited talk and text plan with the $10 per GB cellular data charge is the only plan available; there is not yet a “family plan” available, although several published pundits have indicated that Google may be considering such a plan. Users who have an existing plan with another carrier can easily port (transfer) their current phone number to a phone on Project Fi. Likewise, users who already have a Google Phone account (other than Project Fi) can have their Google Phone number work on their Project Fi phone. If a user has one of the Nexus branded Project Fi compatible phones, and desires to change to a different carrier, it may only be necessary to swap the Project Fi SIM card with a SIM card provided by the new carrier (some carriers do not use SIM cards). Since there is no contract with Project Fi, there are no termination or cancellation fees connected with the account.
My current cellular contract has expired, and I had purchased my current phone outright from a major online seller without any subsidy or contract, so I am free to change carriers if I wish. A new Nexus phone compatible with Project Fi, as well as the Project Fi service are available at very competitive, even potentially money saving, price points. The holidays are approaching. Maybe a new phone with Project Fi might mysteriously show up at my house.