smartphone

Google’s Project Fi: mixed bag, but worth a try

As a long-time Verizon customer, I always loved the great coverage in my area. But when I started working from home in 2015, I realized it was not cost effective when two out of three people on our plan barely used data. For a while I made calls over Skype on WiFi, but that, too, became a problem when I drove long distances or visited family or friends. How do I make calls in the middle of nowhere, no WiFi in range? Borrowing someone’s phone was a pain, and I didn’t want to have to worry about a pre-paid phone. Around that time I came across Google’s Project Fi and thought with a shrug, “Why not?”

What is Project Fi?

Project Fi is a wireless service from Google that is still in beta. If you’re fine with the company still working out some kinks, it’s worth your time to check it out.

There is no annual contract, and the basic cost for 1 line, 1 GB data is cheap. The first line is $20 for “unlimited domestic talk and text, unlimited international texts, Wi-Fi tethering to use your phone as a hotspot, and access cellular coverage in 135+ countries and destinations.” Data is a more expensive $10/GB (but you get credit each month for any you do not use in the month prior), and additional lines are $15. So, for $30/month, users can get 1 line/1GB, and if you use almost none of that data, it’s even cheaper. 

For the three lines on my plan, I pay $80/month to split 3GB data. This was a huge cut from Verizon, to which I paid $80 for two lines with 2GB data.

Project Fi

Many customers who travel out of the country love Fi because they say it’s great in other countries. Note that I haven’t tried this, but it is a common compliment toward the program. Instead of paying high prices for international calls, you can strictly choose to make and receive calls over WiFi or through Google Hangouts, which uses your data and is said to be cheaper than the costs associated with typical carriers. No matter where you are, the data cost never changes from the $10/GB price.

Here’s what Fi is not

Project Fi is not your typical wireless provider. It doesn’t even have its own network, instead opting to piggyback off of 4G-LTE Sprint, T-Mobile, and US Cellular networks, as well as allow calls over WiFi. How it works is simple: your phone will connect to whichever network has the best signal in your location, whether it’s T-Mobile or a WiFi hotspot.

It is not ideal for heavy data users unless you are in an area where you need to take advantage of network hopping. For instance, if you get no coverage from Sprint at home but great at work, and vice-versa with T-Mobile, Fi might be an option so you have cell service where individual networks have spotty coverage.

Fi is also not perfect.

One issue that pops up periodically when making calls over WiFi is an echo. While other networks are said to have good voice calls over WiFi, Google is still working out some kinks.

Sometimes the phone gets stuck with a network, which can be really frustrating when said network has crap signal where you are located. This fix is easy though. There are apps such as Signal Spy that allow you to see what network you’re on and force connect to a different network.

There have been issues with data billing for some users, and you must turn off all automatic downloads and updates so that they occur only over WiFi and you do not get a surprise bill. Also pay attention to any new apps you download and frequently use to be sure they aren’t data hogs. $10 per GB is fine for the first couple, but it gets expensive if you accidentally use a ton of data.

Project Fi also currently only supports a few phones: Nexus 5x, Nexus 6, Nexus 6P and Pixel models. Technically, you can order a data-only SIM and pop it in any smartphone; however, you will only be able to make calls over Google Hangouts, which uses your data.

So what’s the verdict? 

I’ve had Project Fi on three lines for over three months now. I traveled out of town, used calls over WiFi where I didn’t have cell signal and had an overall great experience. 

While in an area that normally has very weak or nonexistent cellular service, I used Google Hangouts to make and receive all calls over the home’s WiFi without an issue.

While traveling the past two weeks on photography assignment, my phone switched flawlessly between networks, giving me signal pretty much everywhere except miles out in the sticks, where I rarely got signal even with my previous Verizon service.

The biggest hurdle we had was getting used to Nexus phones instead of the iPhones we’d used for years. 

Don’t get me wrong. There are some hiccups in the system. Some customers have had issues with transferring numbers, billing, and signal strength. There are the well-known issues with the Nexus 5x boot loop (fingers crossed, we’ve had no issues!), and only one phone is available right now, the Pixel. But I think some of that is to be expected when you’re basically beta testing a new service. It is still called Project Fi, after all. 

Should you try Fi?

In the end, if you

  • could benefit from network hopping because of patchy service in your area,

  • use little data,

  • need a cheap option for phone calls just for when you’re out and about (hello, fellow work-at-homers or stay-at-home parents!), or

  • travel out of country often

Project Fi is an option for you.

Questions about Fi? Hit the comments section! 

Project Fi website (NOTE: This is not a referral link)

Project Fi on Reddit

Krista

Krista

Krista's a freelance proofreader and writer who spends most days eyeballing medical texts, others crafting stories for teen games. Sometimes she even makes a few bucks with photography. One thing's always true--she's got a hot geek streak for historical and scientific discovery.
Krista