My Recent Experiences with Project Fi from Google
As your spring social calendar went from St. Patrick’s Day parties to the festivities of Cinco de Mayo, you might have overlooked another recent celebration in the telecommunications space. Project Fi (“Fi”), a very different wireless service from Google, recently celebrated its first birthday, and quietly went from being an invite-only beta to throwing open its doors to all US wireless subscribers.
Google launched Fi with minimal fanfare in the spring of 2015, positioning it as a new take on the traditional wireless model. Instead of relying on connectivity from cellular towers, smartphones on the Fi service will prioritize any available Wi-Fi connection for their voice and data traffic. Only on the occasions where Wi-Fi signals are weak or unavailable does the Fi service switch seamlessly over to the cellular networks of its partners—T-Mobile and Sprint—and then runs like a traditional mobile virtual network operator (MVNO).
Google has long known that most of us spend the majority of our waking hours connected to Wi-Fi, and so is cleverly stringing together millions of hotspots as its “network” and only using cellular for a fraction of the average subscriber’s voice and data usage. In doing so, it is able to leverage existing free infrastructure and forego the massive network investments of traditional wireless providers, and subsequently can pass those savings on to its subscribers.
Project Fi: How it Works
At the heart of Project Fi is the concept of dynamic network selection—the service intelligently connects the subscriber to the best available network at their location, whether it’s Wi-Fi (the majority of the time) or one of either T-Mobile or Sprint’s 4G LTE networks.
Fi offers a single, no-contract plan. It’s $20 for the base service, which includes unlimited calls and text, and then $10 for each 1 GB of data. The novel part is that the subscriber only pays for the data that they actually use. So if you prepay for (say) 3 GB of data, but only end up using 2 GB, Fi refunds you $10 for the unused 1 GB. Similarly, if you have a 1 GB plan but end up using 3 GB after streaming that NBA playoff game, you’ll only get charged $20 for the extra 2 GB. No overage penalties or price escalations.
The plan also has an attractive international component. It includes free international texts, and for those who travel abroad and have been burnt by roaming charges in the past, there is comfort in knowing that the exact same data costs apply in over 120 countries.
The only catch is that Project Fi is currently limited to Google Nexus phones only. They currently sell the Nexus 6P (from Huawei) starting at $499 and the Nexus 5X (from LG) starting at $199.
In theory, it is a brilliant design, but how well does it work? Well, let’s find out.
A Challenge to Change
My journey with Fi started a couple of months ago while visiting with a certain large tech client in Mountain View, CA. I noticed that I was receiving a few hard stares while using my phone at lunch and apologized for mixing email with entrees. But it was my device of choice—an iPhone—rather than my actions that was discomfiting. “You need to get with the times,” I was told. “If you had a Fi phone, you’d be getting better, faster service and paying a fraction of the cost.”
Multiple heads nodded their agreement with this sage advice, so I smiled benignly and muttered some feeble protest about loving my iPhone and needing strong network coverage (Full disclosure: I have an iPhone 6 running on one of the large national carriers and have used an iPhone ever since I first moved to the US nearly 10 years ago). They’d clearly heard that line before. “Well, have you tried Fi?” came the retort. “I assume you’re not totally against trying something new, otherwise you’d be sitting over there with a Blackberry or a Motorola Razr. So I challenge you to try it out, and let us know if it comes close to meeting your exacting standards.” #drippingsarcasm.
So that’s why I’ve been trying out Fi for the past few weeks. But because I am a researcher, and therefore naturally curious about what other people think and do, I decided to also survey the broader market for their opinions. These are my research findings and my own personal experiences—my “Life of Fi” if you will…
Familiarity with Fi
I work in the world of telecom, so I already knew quite a bit about Project Fi before the gauntlet was cast down before me. But when I started seeking out friends and colleagues that are using the service to get their opinions, I was met with a lot of blank stares. Hardly anyone had even heard the name. Undaunted, I cast my net a bit wider and found a group of 20-something analysts drinking kale smoothies and waxing the handlebars of their flourishing moustaches. Their reaction was quite different—not only did they know Fi, but they loved Fi and were eager to demonstrate their knowledge and prowess.
And so it was with the survey. When asked about their familiarity with Project Fi, four out of five general market respondents have never even heard of it. But this is radically different when you pull apart the demographics. Android users are twice as likely to know at least something about Fi, and one in five Millennials either professes to know a lot about Fi or is using the service already.
Interestingly, familiarity with Fi also skews considerably towards males. Over 12% more males in the general population have heard about Fi, and amongst the Millennials, fully a third of male respondents stated that they “know a lot” about it.
But while awareness of Project Fi might be relatively low amongst the general population, it’s clear that people anticipate that bold moves by a tech company in the US wireless space would likely come from Google. I asked a separate group of respondents which tech brand they thought would be best positioned to launch a new wireless provider and compete with the likes of Verizon and AT&T, and Google was selected four times more often than any other tech brand.
Again, the sample selecting Google skews male—12% more males in the general population select Google than females (who favored Apple and Amazon more), and amongst the Millennials, 90% of males point to Google while brands such as Comcast, Facebook and Microsoft don’t even get a mention.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that the tech brand that owns Android should feature so strongly. But Google’s clear perceptual dominance over brands such as Amazon and Apple, who are not without their own strengths in the wireless space, is a clear indicator that while Project Fi may still be relatively unknown, consumers are more open to bold moves by Google than any other tech company.
The Purchase Experience
My adventure with Fi started with the very expedient Fi website, and I was able to get set up and have a phone on its way to me in less than ten minutes. But not everyone likes to transact over the internet, and if the crowds at my local wireless carrier store are any indication, there are still plenty of people that don’t mind taking a few hours out of their day to fondle some phones and get the latest sales pitch. So I asked my respondents about that—would the lack of physical stores put them off considering Project Fi? Interestingly, only 18% saw it as an issue, with the remainder being quite comfortable doing the deal online.
A far bigger issue for me was the choice of phones. The Fi service relies on a phone that is able to switch seamlessly between Wi-Fi and the partner networks of T-Mobile and Sprint, and to date, Google has limited that to its flagship Nexus phones. So unlike a large carrier’s site/store that offers scores of different phones, the Fi website offers only two—the Nexus 6P made by Huawei and the Nexus 5X made by LG.
Phone selection is vital to wireless carriers. Consumers anticipate an abundance of choice, and we certainly expect to be able to choose between the big-name devices from Apple and Samsung. I was especially curious what the absence of iPhone would mean to consumers. While Google isn’t going to offer a rival device, we all know how important the iPhone is in a carrier’s line-up: AT&T invested millions of dollars in getting and maintaining iPhone exclusively in the early years, and carriers such as T-Mobile suffered for not having it in their line-up until 2013.
But the research shows some interesting results. Only one in ten respondents see the lack of iPhones as a serious issue that would prevent them switching to Fi, indicating that the development of the smartphone market and how the growing dominance of Android has lessened the iPhone effect. What is more interesting, however, is the response from Android Users and Millennials. For a quarter of them, their main concern is not iPhones, but rather being restricted to Nexus phones only. Given that awareness and usage of Fi is highest amongst this group, it is clearly important for Fi to offer a broader range of Android devices (especially the Samsung Galaxy range) if it is to maximize its market potential.
For an Apple fan like myself, not having the iPhone would have been a deal-breaker under normal circumstances. But of course I had a challenge to take up, so I made my grudging selection of a Nexus 5X for $199 (read: I made the minimum commitment possible), fully expecting to experience a severe case of buyer’s remorse.
The User Experience
My phone arrived just a couple of days later, and setup took all of five minutes—insert the Fi SIM card, switch the phone on, and Fi takes care of the rest. I was curious to get started, as I wanted to really test out the network experience, seeing how it compared to what I already had, and then seeing if I could break it. Turns out, I couldn’t. In fact, I found the Fi service to be equal or better than my current wireless service:
- Connected to Wi-Fi: As you would expect, the data experience is much the same when you’re connected to Wi-Fi at home or at work. I was wondering if the Nexus 5X would feel slower than my iPhone, but I didn’t notice any difference in browsing or streaming. The only difference I did find was in Wi-Fi calling. I live in an area with spotty cellular coverage, and my iPhone regularly switches to Wi-Fi calling when I’m at home. I found the Fi calls to be less prone to interference (jitter, echo, etc.), and the overall audio quality was clearer. I suspect this is a software difference between my carrier’s Wi-Fi Calling interface and Google Hangouts (see below).
- Moving Around: The real test was always going to be moving around with my phone, and specifically in the hand-off between Wi-Fi and cellular. I have now tested this many times, including driving away from my Wi-Fi while in the car, or continuing a cellular-initiated call while coming back into range of Wi-Fi, or even just turning off Wi-Fi mid-call or mid-streaming. To date, I haven’t experienced a single issue—the hand-off is completely seamless between networks, and I haven’t had a single dropped call on Fi in over a month. I can’t say the same for my current wireless phone.
You would expect a similar data experience with Fi, but how does it get the voice part to work so well? Well the secret is the underlying software that is managing the voice and data traffic. Fi calls are based on Hangouts, Google’s video-conferencing service. Each call is set up as an audio-only Hangout session, which is then able to operate on and transition easily between Wi-Fi and the cellular data network. The net result is that instead of depending on a single network, Fi is hunting for and always providing the best of the three available networks for your voice and data. You don’t have to be a network engineer to know that three is better than one.
When your Fi phone is connected to cellular, it still says “Project Fi” in the top left corner, so you never know whether you are on T-Mobile or Sprint. Being a telecom guy, I was curious to see what Fi’s preferred cellular option was in my part of the world, so took to using the Signal Spy app to provide very granular detail on what network I was connected to at any point in time.
I found that my phone almost always switched to T-Mobile as the default option in North Atlanta, and looking back over my two-week history, I can see that on the three occasions that a Sprint connection was made, it was always dropped in favor of T-Mobile after a few minutes. Clear evidence for me that T-Mobile has the faster network in my neck of the woods.
Having used Fi for a couple of months, I can say with confidence that it is every bit as good as (and often better than) a traditional wireless provider experience. It’s also a lot cheaper. Because I spend most of my time on Wi-Fi, I find that I’m using less than 2 GB of cellular data per month, which means that I actually get a refund on my $40 monthly cost. In fact, the Wall Street Journal has done the analysis, and concluded that if you’re using anything less than 8 GB of cellular data per month (which is most of us), you’re saving money with FI.
As for the phone, I confess that I’ve grown to love my Nexus 5X. Adapting to Android was not nearly as difficult as I thought it would be, and along the way I have discovered a number of features that have caused me to look back at my iPhone with a raised eyebrow or two. I’m not quite ready to abandon my iPhone, primarily because of all of my media and sunk costs in the Apple “walled garden,” but I’m finding that when I grab my car keys each morning and look down at the two phones, I’m picking up the Nexus 5X more and more often.
So would I actually switch to Fi? If I hadn’t taken up the challenge, I wouldn’t have even considered it. But now that I’ve tried it out, I am a near-convert. The practical experience was vital to engaging me and changing my opinions, and Fi would certainly benefit from an experiential component similar to T-Mobile’s “Test Drive” promotion, allowing prospective users to take a test drive before committing. My final test will be during my business travel over the coming month, and seeing how Fi fares in different cities across the US. Assuming it passes that test, number porting is in my future.
But what do other people feel about switching to Fi? Clearly my younger, more bearded colleagues are already well advanced in their switching consideration, and this was also borne out by the research. While less than half of the general population are ready to consider switching to Fi, Android users are much more open to the idea, and more than three quarters of Millennials would consider Fi on their next go-around with a phone or wireless plan. So while Fi might have some success converting established iPhone users like myself, the awareness and consideration data is a clear indication of where the sweet spot is for Project Fi.
Some Fi-nal Thoughts
The Fi service isn’t unique. Republic Wireless has been offering a similar “hybrid calling” service since 2011, and indeed the Hangouts software that Fi runs on is underpinned by WebRTC, which is open source and available for anyone to use and modify. In theory, we could see numerous equivalents of Project Fi entering the market in the coming years, either as new startups or potentially existing players such as prepaid providers or MVNOs looking to find a new competitive edge.
Google has also remained coy about its ultimate ambitions, eschewing talk of outright competition with the established players and describing Project Fi as a “small-scale experiment,” designed to push the broader market forward and encourage new types of wireless services. That may well be true, but many of us will remember that just a few years ago it described Google Fiber in similar terms, and we all know that “little experiment” has long since left the lab and become a formidable competitor to traditional telecom providers. Google has never shied away from even the largest competitors or the opportunity to break into new markets, so as the US wireless market moves to the next battles beyond 4G, the first shots have certainly been Fi-red.
What are your thoughts about Project Fi and its potential to disrupt the US wireless market? Would you ever consider switching to Project Fi, or are you using it and have some thoughts to share? Feel free to email me or comment on this post.
Market Strategies interviewed a national sample of 1,000 consumers aged 18 to 65 between May 3 and May 6, 2016. Respondents were recruited from the GCS panel of US adults and were interviewed online. The data were weighted by age, gender, and region to match the demographics of the US population. Due to its opt-in nature, this online panel (like most others) does not yield a random probability sample of the target population. As such, it is not possible to compute a margin of error or to statistically quantify the accuracy of projections. Market Strategies will supply the exact wording of any survey question upon request.