First Experiences with Google’s Project Fi Cell Phone Service by Ira Wilsker

Some of you might remember my column from several weeks ago where I wrote about the newly available Google Project Fi cellular phone service.  For those who may not be aware, Project Fi is a cell phone service created and promoted by Google that is intended to offer cell phone voice and data service that seamlessly combines the networks of multiple carriers (currently Sprint and T-Mobile) along with secured Wi-Fi service consisting of over a million Google approved hotspots.  Project Fi’s service is generally priced below similar offerings from other cell phone companies, with unlimited talk and text for $20 per month, and cellular data costing $10 per month per gigabyte. The actual charge for cellular data used is prorated at only a penny per megabyte, with any unused data charges automatically credited to the following month’s bill.  There are no charges for data usage or calls made over Wi-Fi hotspots.  There is no contract required in order to utilize Project Fi, and users can pause or cancel the plan at any time without any penalties.  

At present, the only phones “officially” supported by Google on Project Fi are the newer Nexus models 6, 5X, and 6P, because these phones can connect with virtually any and all  of the transmission protocols currently utilized by the different cell phone companies, including GSM, CDMA, HSPA+, and LTE.  Because of this universal compatibility, Google claims that phones connected with Project Fi will work without modification in over 120 countries (there may be some nationally imposed fees on foreign cell phone usage).

I closed my earlier column on Project Fi with the following statement, “A new Nexus phone compatible with Project Fi, as well as the Project Fi service, is 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.”  Fulfilling that prophecy, a new Nexus 6, the 64GB model in Midnight Blue strangely appeared at my house during the holidays.  The day that I opened the box, I went online to claim my earlier “invite” from Project Fi to activate my phone on the Project Fi service.  There were no activation charges, and Project Fi quickly sent me a new SIM card (free), which was dispatched to me by second day air.

Setting up and configuring the new phone on Project Fi was very simple and quick.  I did commit one faux pas while setting up the new phone, which was totally my fault; I did not read the “Quick Start Guide” that was included, and had not downloaded the required Project Fi app from the Google Play Store prior to activating the phone.  Even before being activated, the new Nexus 6 phone connected flawlessly to my secured home Wi-Fi system, allowing me to download the app. The Project Fi app was necessary to perform all of the required configurations and settings on the phone. I removed the SIM card, downloaded the app from the Play Store, reinserted the SIM card, and everything worked as advertised, despite my wasted two minutes.  The Project Fi app said that it may take a day or so to complete the activation process, and calls could not be made in that time, but the Wi-Fi service would be immediately available.  Surprisingly, in less than 30 minutes, my new phone was fully activated, a fact confirmed by placing and receiving several calls with it.  I also received an invite to join the official Project Fi community on Google+.  While I could have ported (transferred) my existing cell phone number to the new phone, I decided not to port it, as I will continue to use my previous phone for a while.

Being aware that the Nexus 6 was “last year’s phone”, being released by Google in late 2014, it was available at a better price than the newly released (late 2015) phones, as well as having a larger screen (6″) than the newer phones.  The specifications and reviews of this particular Nexus 6 model known as “XT1103” (the latest build) were generally in the very good to excellent range.  This Nexus 6 is widely available from a variety of local and online resources, but I found the best prices online.  Amazon had this model available deeply discounted on Cyber Monday ($199 for the 32GB model, and $249 for the 64GB model), but by the time I saw the email with the sale listing, they were totally sold out.  About 10 days after Cyber Monday, Amazon again had them in stock, but they were $299 (32GB) and $349 (64GB).  In recent days, Amazon has lowered the price to $249 and $299 respectively.  One warning to those who may be shopping for this (and other) cell phones online.  Prior to purchase, verify that they are compatible with American cell phone networks, and have U.S. warranties.  I did find several third party sellers on Amazon, eBay, and other websites offering these phones at better prices, but they were often either “gray market” foreign phones, or older builds of the phones; several of the “deals” on these other sites were for the Nexus 6 “model XT1100” (for non-US markets) which does not have the newer multi spectrum cellular radio compatible with Project Fi.  Published reviews of the XT1100 were often not as positive as the updated XT1103 build that I purchased.  When in doubt, ask the seller.

I have now used my Nexus 6 on Project Fi for about a week, and have been favorably impressed.  Locally, I had no problem connecting to both my secured home Wi-Fi and public “hotspots” around town.  One of the features touted by Project Fi is the “over 1.1 million” tested and verified Wi-Fi hotspots that use an encrypted VPN (Virtual Private Network) to connect securely to the internet without the risks of connecting to the “open” Wi-Fi available in coffee shops, hotels, restaurants, and other locations.  Many of these same locations have been certified by Project Fi, providing the encrypted VPN connections in addition to their open and public Wi-Fi.  When connected to one of these secured Wi-Fi connections, a “key” appears on the top of the screen indicating that the connection is secured and meets Project Fi’s strict encryption and security standards.  As stated previously, Project Fi does not charge for data or calls made over domestic Wi-Fi connections, but in some foreign countries there may be local fees assessed for Wi-Fi calling and data.

One of the reasons why I was personally interested in Project Fi was the problems I had when travelling, using cellular connections with my Google Maps or Waze (my personal favorite) road routing apps, when driving through extended dead spots without a decent data connection.  While I also have some of the “no internet required” road routing apps on my phone, with their included huge files of digital maps, I still prefer Waze or Google Maps while travelling.  Since Project Fi currently utilizes two major cellular carriers for data, Sprint and T-Mobile, I have found fewer dead spots than I had using just my single carrier on my other phone.  Project Fi instantly and seamlessly “hands over” the call or data connection to whichever carrier offers the best signal, with a configurable priority (set by default) to utilize a secured Wi-Fi connection (with its free data) whenever possible.

I installed two other free apps on my new phone to help identify the carriers that I was connected to in real time, as well as their “channels” or frequency.  I found the Signal Spy app to be invaluable displaying detailed and comprehensive information on both an available Wi-Fi connection as well as the cellular connection with the best signal.  Signal Spy (formerly called Fi Spy) is free, but offers a voluntary and optional Pro version without ads (and includes future additional features as they become available) for a “contribution” of 99 cents to $3.99.  The other free app that I have been using to display even more information about cellular connections, including distance and direction (bearing) to the tower, signal strength, radio channel or frequency, map showing the tower location, and several other features is “LTE Discovery”.  Since I was curious to know what carrier I was connected to, (with my wife driving!), I simultaneously monitored the signal strength and carrier information of both my original single carrier phone and my new Nexus 6 on Project Fi.

Having just returned from a round trip from home to very rural western Louisiana, I had the ability to put the two phones to the test; my original phone was on T-Mobile only.  While the phones were of different makes and models, both are from the same technological generation, and very similar in specifications, other than the newer Nexus 6 being capable of receiving cellular signals from multiple carriers and automatically switching to secured Wi-Fi when available.  On Interstate 10 driving through Texas and into Louisiana, I primarily had a T-Mobile signal of varying strength on both phones, but there were some spots with weak or non-existent T-Mobile coverage; in several of these locations, my Nexus phone instantly switched to a better signal from a nearby Sprint tower when available, keeping my map programs running on the Nexus phone while the same apps on my T-Mobile phone indicated that they were looking for a network connection.  Once off the interstate, and driving through sparsely populated rural Louisiana, while there were still a few dead spots with no decent data coverage on either Sprint or T-Mobile, I did often get a decent T-Mobile data signal from their newer “Channel 12” transceivers, which T-Mobile has been installing in rural (and some densely populated urban) areas.  Running on a much lower frequency (700 MHz) than most of the other carriers, T-Mobile’s Channel 12 has a longer range providing better coverage in rural areas.  When we stopped for lunch at a restaurant in rural Louisiana, the restaurant did not have Wi-Fi, but I had a very strong Sprint signal on the Nexus phone, while the T-Mobile phone displayed no signal.  It appears to be very synergistic to have a single phone that can interchangeably receive signals from multiple carriers, rather than just receiving signal from a single carrier.  This is what may make Project Fi successful when compared to individual cell phone carriers.

While purely anecdotal, in the official Project Fi forum on Google+ (Google Plus), several users have posted screen captures where their Nexus phones on Project Fi had successfully connected to AT&T and Verizon towers, even though there is no (current) formal relationship between Project Fi and those carriers.  Also in that official Project Fi forum are “unsubstantiated rumors”, reposted from other sources, that Google is in talks with AT&T and Verizon to include their towers in the Project Fi service.  If such a union were to occur in the future, that would really strengthen the coverage options for Project Fi users.  Since the Project Fi compatible phones can natively connect to virtually any cell service, there would be no major technological impediment to such an availability.  For the naysayers who have publicly belittled such (rumored) increased availability from AT&T and Verizon, all they need to do is look at the Walmart branded cell phone services, where Walmart purchases huge numbers of bulk minutes and terabytes of data from the likes of AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile, and resells them under its own (SmartTalk) label, where Walmart handles the billing and support.  With the economic power of Google, and the establishment of Project Fi, there is no reason why Google cannot do the same.

A few other changes since I wrote my original Project Fi article a few months ago.  In recent weeks, Project Fi announced a new, low cost, “Data Only” service for T-Mobile compatible tablets that have cellular connection (not “Wi-Fi only”) capabilities.  With no contract, and no activation fee, Project Fi will send the tablet owner a free SIM card, enabling the tablet user to access cellular data for the same penny per megabyte, $10 per month per gigabyte, fully prorated based on actual cellular data usage.  As with the phones, if the user only uses 750 MB in a month, the unused portion, or $2.50, will be credited to the next month’s fee.  Users can purchase as many “gigs” per month as they desire, but end up only paying for what they actually use.  While only having been available for a few weeks (as I type this), the reviews posted on the official Project Fi community on Google+ have been very positive.  Many of the reviewers commented on the faster speeds and lower data costs of their Project Fi connected tablets.  No invitation is required to get a “data only” tablet SIM card from Project Fi.  Users have connected tablets running both Android and iOS to this new service.

The exploding popularity of Project Fi has caught the attention of phone manufacturers in addition to the Nexus line sold by Google.  Nexus phones are actually manufactured by major companies such as LG, Motorola (now a Lenovo subsidiary), Huawei, and others, then sold with Google’s Nexus label.  Recently Motorola started shipping its new “Moto X Pure Edition”, which is very similar to my Nexus 6 (also made by Motorola), including the multi carrier compatible cellular radio, and some other enhancements.  The new Moto X Pure Edition has a 5.7″ screen and 21 megapixel camera, while my Nexus 6 has a 6″ (really 5.97″) screen and 13 megapixel camera, but other than that, the two models are very similar.  While not officially “approved” for Project Fi, several Moto X Pure Edition users have successfully activated their new phones on Project Fi, displaying their results in the official Project Fi community in Google+.  In the “unsubstantiated rumor” category, according to posts in the Google+ community, other manufactures may be developing phones to run on Project Fi; among those makers “rumored” to be developing such a phone is Apple, which may (or may not) be developing an iPhone to run on Project Fi.

While still in its infancy, but rapidly growing in popularity, Google’s Project Fi could potentially be a cellular force to be reckoned with.  If (that big word “IF”) Google can work a deal to include access to additional carriers such as AT&T and Verizon, and additional makers start producing compatible phones (and tablets), Project Fi may possibly become unbeatable in terms of cellular coverage.  For the time being, I am very satisfied with the increased coverage that I personally experienced using Project Fi on my recent trip; the availability of over a million (and increasing) secured and verified Wi-Fi hotspots is also a big plus.

My next project may very well be getting the rest of my family moved over to Project Fi.  Better coverage, no contract, no activation fees, and lower monthly bills is a big attraction.


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