I don’t carry many gadgets on my person, but I do appreciate the experience of a quality mobile device that can operate in a variety of challenging environments. From urban downtown settings to being nestled in the comforting hum of a data center, I look to my phone for information, guides, notes, and communication with other tech professionals. My challenge is that every carrier and device works a little bit differently and are highly sensitive to geographical location (of which I traverse many). Although it deviates a bit from my normal technical coverage, this post focuses on my recent changes to address this challenge in the hopes that it will provide guidance to anyone else in a similar situation.
I saw a few messages float across social media from Satyam Vaghani, CTO at PernixData, expressing his happiness with Google’s Project Fi. Having no idea what it was, I did some research. I learned that Google has created their own mobile data service by forming a relationship with T-Mobile and Sprint for LTE service (you can view a coverage map here). By signing up for Project Fi, you’re able to tap into whatever service is faster for where you are presently.
Whenever 4G LTE is available, Project Fi will move you to whichever cellular network has the fastest 4G LTE at your location. When 4G LTE isn’t available, we’ll put you on the fastest network type in your area (3G or 2G). – source
That sounded neat, especially with the amount of travel that I do. So I dug a little deeper into how this service is charged. Billing is broken down into two segments:
- A flat, $20 USD per month for unlimited talk and domestic / international texts, phone Wi-Fi hotspot feature, and international coverage.
- $10 USD per GB of data, paid based on usage, that works across 120 different countries.
Doing the math, this came out over $100 cheaper than my Verizon plan, not to mention international data fees (Verizon is $25 per 100 MB of data). This was a no brainer. Since my Verizon phone was over 2 years old there was no longer a standing contract, I decided to purchase a Google Nexus 6P from Project Fi and try them out. Worse case, I’d have a cool new phone that just needed a Verizon sim card (source) because Project Fi has no contract. Best case, I could dump Verizon entirely and embrace the new-er world order of Google.
Signup and Setup
When signing up for Project Fi, there’s really only two questions to answer:
- What phone do you want to use – theirs (Google Nexus 5 or 6) or yours (buy a sim for it).
- How much data do you want to purchase ahead of time.
Since my Verizon phone had 6 GB of data per month, I selected 6 GB from Project Fi. The results are below:
Any data I don’t use at the end of the billing cycle will be credited back. This helps me maintain an artificial “peak data” rate for spending and utilizing data, as the phone will alert me when I get close to the purchased amount of data. If I go beyond the 6 GB, they just charge for what I use. To date, I haven’t used much.
It’s really neat that I can see on a per-day basis how much data I’ve used. In real time! Maybe other carriers offer this sort of analytics, but Verizon definitely doesn’t. Based on my usage thus far, I owe Google about $4.56 for data. The rest has all been Wi-Fi usage, with the phone being smart enough to seek out Wi-Fi hotspots throughout Austin for me to use via their secure connection over VPN. If you’re a tinfoil hat sort of person, this can also be disabled.
Tech Support and Number Porting
I did hit a pretty big snag trying to port my old GrandCentral (bought by Google in 2007 and rebranded as Google Voice in 2009) number over. It was living on my Google Apps account, which is not supported by Project Fi. In fact, Project Fi only supports Gmail accounts right now. When I tried to port my number over from Google Apps to Project Fi, the port failed.
So, I tried the 24×7 tech support email address. I received a response in a few minutes from a helpful guy named Dave. He explained what was going on and helped me work through the problem. He even offered a phone number for me to call in, but I figured the problem was so simple that talking on the phone wasn’t necessary.
Unfortunately, Dave didn’t know about the issues with porting a number over from Google Apps to Project Fi. I put the problem aside for the weekend, then dialed into the support number the week following and was immediately connected to another helpful support agent. Very friendly! She escalated the problem to an engineer, and that was when we figured out the Google Apps issue. My assumption here is that the entire team is a bit new to the whole “running a phone company” thing, and I’m a bit of an outlier. After all, my situation is a tad unique.
The answer to my problem was to port from Google Apps to a Gmail account, then from that Gmail account to Project Fi. Annoying? Yes. But, it only took a few minutes to whip up a temporary Gmail account and have the engineer complete the port. And, for my trouble, they credited me $90.
I think that’s fair, and I didn’t even ask – they were very sorry for my pain and gave me the credits right away. Bam! That’s about 3 months worth of service with my current data usage. I’m a happy camper.
T-Mobile and Sprint seem to have flakier networks than Verizon, although it may just be either the phone switching between LTE providers or me being in spots that have weak signal. I don’t notice this often, but did have some initial troubles making calls from one of the rooms in my apartment. To date, I haven’t had call issues anywhere else, but I think it’s important to realize that not all networks are created equal.
For my specific use case, the other caveat is having to use Project Fi on my Gmail account. Because I merge SMS messages (to avoid switching phone numbers), it means having Google Talk messages on my Google Apps account, and SMS messages on my Gmail account. This is slightly annoying when using Chrome on a desktop, as it means I have to keep both tabs open (one for Talk and the other for Voice / SMS). On the phone, it doesn’t matter because they are muxed together.
I’m nearing one month with the service and am fairly happy. Consider me 9 out of 10 stars happy. The service is reliable, speedy, and available in the various US destinations I’ve visited. Other than the call drop issue at home, I haven’t experienced any problems. I didn’t take away any stars for the number porting complications, because it has nothing to do with the service itself – just me wanting to continue using the same number.
With International travel coming up next month for the Sydney, Melbourne, and Singapore VMUG UserCon events, I’m curious to see how Project Fi handles data services in these countries. According to their site, I’m good to go. But, as we all know, proof is in the pudding. If you have any questions that I didn’t cover in this post, please let me know so I can add more details. I hope that those looking to switch have as much luck with the service as I have! 🙂
Update: International Travel
As eluded to in the previous section, I was taking my Project Fi powered Nexus 6P with me abroad. With my Verizon phone, this really sucked – the price was horrible ($25 per 100 MB) and required me signing into their website to “enable” the international data, then disable it later. Project Fi was completely seamless. From the moment I landed in Sydney, the phone started working. Visiting the Project Fi app showed this handy little screen.
I ended up making several calls while in Australia, spending a little over 100 minutes total on calls back to the US. That set me back a little over $20 USD, but I’m happy with the fact that I could be reached on my normal US number and didn’t have to juggle a SIM. In the future, I’ll try using Google Voice / Talk to make calls, although hotel WiFi has spotty quality for voice (especially over international distances).
Data usage clocked in at about 1.3 GB, costing $13 USD. Thus, my total spend over the course of 15 days in APJ – including 4 hours spent in Tokyo – was $34.03 USD. To contrast, I spent about $150 USD on data alone with Verizon during VMworld Europe in Barcelona. And I was getting 4G LTE speeds in all the four major cities that I visited (and most of the suburbs, too).
As an added bonus, it appears that Project Fi is now openly available to folks in the states. You still need a Nexus phone, but I’m really pleased with my USB-C compliant Nexus 6P. With a rapid charging cable that can supply 5V and 3A, the phone will charge in half an hour-ish, and it has a rather snazzy camera.