A Nexus 6P smartphone. (Credit: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg)
The wireless market is crowded, but despite the array of options it can be hard to find a good deal. AT&T T -0.29% and Verizon are well-established with widespread, high-quality service, but they also have the most expensive plans. Sprint and T-Mobile cost less, but can also be less reliable. And then there’s a the whole horde of MVNO plans like Cricket Wireless, StraightTalk and MetroPCS that piggy-back off of other services to offer less costly plans.
Once an invitation-only service, Google’s MVNO Project Fi opened to all comers in March 2016. It works by pinging off a three different carriers (U.S. Cellular , T-Mobile or Sprint) depending on which has the best signal where you are at the moment. Plans start at $20 for unlimited talk and text, and then each gigabyte of data is $10.
So at first glance, it seems like a great budget plan for someone looking for options outside of the America’s four biggest carriers. I spent 30 days on the service, and while I wanted to love it, at the end I decided to move to another mobile provider. If you’re thinking of switching to Project Fi, here are some of the biggest pros and cons to know about:
1. It has straightforward pricing and usage info.
It’s easy to know exactly how much you’re spending on Project Fi in a given month. You set how much you think you’ll need in data each month (in my case, I rather optimistically estimated 1GB) and then are only charged for exactly how much you use. If you go over your estimate, you’ll get charged for the additional data but not overage fees. If you use less, you’ll get some money back.
It’s also easy to track exactly how much data you’re using with the Project Fi app, downloadable from the Google Play Store. It tells you when your next bill is due, how much data you’ve used compared to your estimated use for the month, and how much you’ve used each day.
2. It has fast, robot-free customer service.
The worst thing about calling most customer service lines is how difficult it is to talk to an actual person. The handful of times I had questions about my plan, I was able to log in to my account on the Project Fi website and open a chat window with a customer service person in under 5 minutes.
3. You have to have a Google Nexus phone.
Project Fi only works if you have a Nexus 6, 5X or 6P smartphone. While the Nexus phones are top-notch and get timely Android OS updates, this is still a pretty limiting selection.
4. It’s good for frequent international travelers.
If you travel a lot and want to use your phone outside of the United States, this could be the plan for you. Project Fi lets you use your phones data normally (read: with no insane roaming fees) in 135 different countries. You can also make phone calls over Wi-Fi normally, or place calls on a cellular network for 20 cents per minute. Texts aren’t any additional cost whether on Wi-Fi or a cell network.
In short, unless you’re making a lot of calls outside of Wi-Fi, your phone will work normally at no extra charge at almost any country you want to travel to.
5. Data costs are the Achilles heel.
If you’re a light data user (say just 1-2GB a month) Project Fi might be a great deal for you. But if you average more than 3GB, you’re probably better off with another service. Say, for example, you want unlimited calls and texts and 4GB of data a month, that would cost $60 on Project Fi. For the same price, you can get an individual plan with unlimited data, talk and text on Sprint, or for $10 more you can get the same thing on T-Mobile.
One of Project Fi’s biggest selling points is that it makes it easy to connect to Wi-Fi for your calls and data use, but even thought I live and work in the San Francisco Bay Area I found it difficult to be on Wi-Fi all the time. Just using my phone throughout my 45-min BART ride each way was enough to bust through my daily data budget.
While Project Fi will refund you for any data that you sign up for but don’t use, if you’re a power user data costs can still jack up the price significantly.
Have you used Google’s Project Fi? Let us know what you think in the comments section.