Google’s Project Fi: a flexible and truly global mobile solution for international travellers

As someone who travels internationally fairly extensively, juggling with multiple phone numbers and SIM cards to match the countries I visit most frequently has always been technically irritating and, unless much care is given, financially draining.

Like most people nowadays I hardly ever make voice calls And the 'unlimited' voice plans still offered by most providers don't at all match my requirements. My data usage, on the other hand, has for a while been colossal, since my typical day is spent pretty much constantly connected, checking facts and news online, uploading and downloading media and using social social accounts. Ever since I unwittingly clocked up a $2,000 data bill in two weeks while in South Africa with a French phone in 2008, I've learnt to pay attention to the matter.

I've basically handled the situation, until now, by maintaining cellphone numbers with two providers in the countries I visit most frequently—France and the US—and buying SIM cards which I insert into my iPad when I visit other countries. Using iOS's personal hotspot functionality, I can then piggyback my iPhone to my iPad's local cellular data without having to worry about the occasional phone call not coming through, since the SIM card associated with my original carrier remains in my iPhone. On my iPad Pro 9.7, the process is made even easier by the option of purchasing a local mobile data plan without even having to change SIM cards.

Whilst the setup just described met my needs, I was intrigued by Google's announcement in April 2015 that it is entering the cellphone market.

Google is no stranger to disrupting old ways to offer customers access to the internet. In 2010, the company launched Google Fiber, its take on distributing low-cost, gigabit internet access to specified regions. Clearly aimed at disrupting the oligopoly operated by Internet providers at the expense of consumers, the Google Fiber approach is changing what speeds existing service providers offer, as well as what they charge. The Google Project Fi wireless service was inspired by the same underlying philosophy.

Google's main boast is that, unlike other carriers, Project Fi will provide you with a more consistent and cheaper connection, 'by intelligently connecting you to the fastest available network at your location whether it's Wi-Fi or one of our [...] partner LTE networks' (currently Sprint, T-Mobile and US Cellular). Fi will also automatically connect to more than a million free, open Wi-Fi hotspots Google has 'verified as fast and reliable'

In all situations, whether you're using Wi-Fi or cellular data, you can always call or text seamlessly, which a phone provided by other carriers will not.

Setting up Google Fi, monitoring your account and interacting with support all rank the best in the industry

Applying online is a breeze. You have to apply using a Gmail account (see why below). Google checks you live in an area in which you have coverage by checking your zip code.

Signing up for Project Fi is easy

You're then given a choice between porting your own number or getting a new number allotted to you by Google. I chose the latter because I didn't want to add an extra layer of complication before committing to Project Fi and was secure in the knowledge that I could port my number to Fi later [i]. Before you do this, it might be worth understanding how number porting actually works, as in some cases texts will take longer to start coming through than calls. I had to ask Project Fi support to escalate a support case regarding the time lag for texts to come through to my new phone on my old number after it had been ported to Project Fi.

Porting your old number Project Fi is easy

One other issue to consider when porting your number is how you want to handle Caller ID.

Caller ID in the US is handled by a database called CNAM. It is worth bearing in mind that Caller ID is made up of two separate pieces of information: the calling number and the billing (or subscriber) name where available. When a call is made from a given name, this name can be passed on through a number of different methods. For example, the caller's name may be datafilled in the originating switch, in which case it is sent along with the number [ii]

Confusingly, Google offers its own Caller ID service, Caller ID by Google, which is an entirely separate system to the CNAM-sourced Caller ID and allows you to see inbound and outbound phone numbers for people not saved as contacts. When enabled, this uses any information you and the parties with whom you interact have made publicly available on Google to display when making a phone call. It works in both directions: your information (typically, any information you've made publicly available on your Google+ account) will be shown to any compatible Android device to which you make a phone call. Conversely you will see the publicly-available information associated with the number for any phone call you receive or make, even if they aren't already in your contacts.

While I find this feature incredibly useful, it's worth remembering that Google enables it by default. If you want to keep your details private, you have to head to the Phone section of your Google Privacy settings to enable or disable it—and if you enable it, to set your Google+ privacy settings according to what information you are happy to make potentially available to anyone with whom you interact by phone.

Checking the privacy setting for Caller ID by Google

You then set your monthly budget, choose and customise your device if you elect to buy one, at a subsidised price, from Google. (I chose a Nexus 5X with 32GB of RAM.)

Once you've confirmed your service address and filled in your credit card details, you're good to go. You actually prepay for each month of service and there's no credit check.

Just a few days later, my Project Fi phone and SIM card arrived and my line was working within minutes of opening the box.

The Settings page for a Project Fi account looks exactly the same on your phone or on the website and is clear-cut and totally clutter-free. Tabs are provided for 'Account', 'Billing' and 'Support'.

The Setting page for project Fi

The first two include simple options to view account history, manage your data plan, and to pause or cancel service with no penalty incurred.

If you need support you are given a choice of phone, email or (on the website) chat and links are provided to the Project Fi Help articles and forum. There is almost no wait time and the level of support is significantly higher than what I have experienced from other cellular providers on both sides of the Atlantic, with the best service apparently offered by the chat support team, rather than by email.

The Support page for Project Fi

Deep integration with Google Hangouts makes Project Fi device-agnostic

Possibly the most powerful and innovative feature of project Fi, however, is that it's completely device agnostic. Google achieved this by building Fi to work, out of the box, in deep integration with its Google Hangouts communications platform.

Because unlike Apple's iMessage, Hangouts is platform agnostic, official clients exist for it on all for all the main devices: iOS, the Mac, Windows and Android [iii]. This means you can actually use your Project Fi number on all your devices seamlessly.

Using Project Fi on Google Hangouts

On Android, unlike iOS, you are free to choose any third-party client for most functionality. Thus for SMS, you can choose to use Hangouts as your SMS provider and, with a Project Fi phone, once you have activated that change, your text messages and voicemail (though not, unfortunately, your call history) will sync across Hangouts everywhere, including: Gmail chat, Google+ Page or profile, Chrome desktop app, Android or iOS device, Inbox by Gmail, or the Chrome extension. You can also make and receive calls on any device that has the Hangouts client installed.

A Project Fi account costs $20 a month plus a flat additional $10/GB

For $20, you get use of one phone number, unlimited domestic talk and text, unlimited international texts, Wi-Fi tethering to use your phone as a hotspot, and access cellular coverage in 120+ countries.

Data is charged at a flat rate of $10 per gigabyte, and any prorated unused gigabytes are refunded to you. So if you only use 400MB in any given month, you get $6 back.

You can cancel the service whenever you like without termination fees. Alternatively you can also suspend service.

The biggest bonus of Project Fi: use your data plan internationally at no extra cost

Possibly Fi's most exciting feature, however, is that you can use your data plan in 120 countries at exactly the same cost as in the US: $10/GB, which comes on top of the $20 charge for using the service. Any unused data is credited to your account:

1GB is $10/month, 2GB is $20/month, 3GB is $30/month, and so on. Since it's hard to predict your data usage, you'll get credit for the full value of your unused data. Let's say you go with 3GB for $30 and only use 1.4GB one month. You'll get $16 back, so you only pay for what you use.

While this isn't necessarily the cheapest rate around, since my data usage fluctuates wildly depending on how often I am in the US, this is pretty much ideal for me. I expect the average month-on-month cost of using the service to be derisory.

For international voice calls, which I hardly ever make and then almost always to or from the US, if you're calling a US number over Wi-Fi, you're not charged any extra [iv]. If you're calling an international number, there's a per-minute charge that varies per country.

Google specifies you are limited to 3G when using cell coverage internationally, but in Paris I've found my phone using LTE as well. And, of course, when you're connected to Wi-Fi, even if you're not in one of the 120 countries in which Fi offers cellular coverage at US rates, you can always call and text everywhere. SMS are entirely free regardless of destination, which I haven't seen any other carrier offer. And calls to the US are free on Wi-Fi. Calls outside the US using the cellular network are 20 cents a minute, but given how infrequently I place them, I can always managed to do so when I'm on Wi-Fi.

From what I've seen so far using Project Fi in France—testing both my Android device, my Mac, my iPad and my iPhone using the Hangouts client—the service works flawlessly on both Wi-Fi and the Orange cellular network.

Google Fi for now is Android only, but with data-only SIM cards you can actually use it on an iPhone

Google provides you with up to nine data-only SIM cards that you can use with your Fi data account on your other devices. You can also use the same data-only SIM card in multiple devices.

As Google points out, if you set up a data-only SIM with a phone, you will have access to data, but you won’t be able to make calls and texts across the cellular network. In practice this means you can insert a data-only SIM card in any recent unlocked iPhone and use it with your Fi account, resorting to the iOS Hangouts app for your texts and phone calls. The only downside of this is that your call history will not synced to your other devices. I tested this on an unlocked iPhone SE in Paris and the phone worked, using the Orange network for cellular coverage although I found I had to make outgoing calls using Hangouts. It will also only be able to access the cell network via T-Mobile in the US, although I haven't tested this.

For anyone who, like me, moves between two or more countries and has mobile phone contracts in each location (in my case the US and France), Project Fi provides the ideal setup:

  • when in the US, I can either use my Project Fi Nexus 5X and optionally receive my French texts on my iPad using Apple's Apple's Continuity feature [v] or carry both phones, with my French iPhone using my Project Fi phone as a hotspot;
  • When in France, my French iPhone with the Hangouts iOS client installed means I can receive and make calls and SMS from and two both my US and French numbers;
  • When in any other country, such as the UK or Israel, I can use my Android Project Fi phone and iPad with the Project Fi data-only SIM card installed exactly as if I were in the US.

Project Fi's drawbacks—principally that it isn't offered with Google Apps accounts and that you have to use it on a Nexus phone—are worth bearing with

I've been using Google Apps for Work for my email ever since it was first launched as Google Apps for Your Domain in 2006, because it means I retain control of my email address while using the unrivalled power of Gmail's servers. Yet I've had to keep a separate Gmail account open for the specific purpose of using features that Google hasn't made available for Google Apps [vi].

When Project Fi launched last year, Google stated a Gmail account was required to use the service, and it doesn't seem to be in any hurry to open it to Google Apps customers [vii].

In practice, however, the restriction can be effectively circumvented, owing to Google's option to sign in to multiple accounts at once. On my phone and iPad, I keep my Gmail account active on Hangouts and my Google Apps account active on everything else (Gmail, Contacts, Calendar and Search). This effectively neutralises the inconvenience.

The annoyance of having to use an Android phone for Project Fi is less trivial. While you're in the US or in any other country in which you don't have a separate data plan that you can use on your iPhone, you have to carry your Project Fi phone with you in order to benefit from the fixed-price worldwide data plan. You can of course carry your iPhone as well and piggy-back to the Nexus 5X (or to your Project Fi data-enabled iPad) for your iPhone's data consumption. But in all other situations an iPhone with a separate local data plan, such as the one I have in France, and Hangouts logged into your Gmail account will give you access to in- and outbound calls and SMS using your Project Fi number.

If anyone calls you while you only have access to Hangouts, your Hangouts client will ring and you can answer the call normally. The same goes for SMS.

This effectively allows you to use two different phone numbers—indeed, phone numbers from two different countries—on a single phone, something I'd been wanting to do for a long time and cannot be done in such a simple way or so cheaply with any other carrier [viii].

One final thought: Google are renowned for eventually pulling up the drawbridge on products they've set up, amid shows of great enthusiasm, and invested in heavily, often without providing users with much notice or anywhere to go once service is terminated. Google Buzz, Google Apps Free edition, Google Reader, Google Talk and Picasa spring to mind. It can't be ruled out Google will lose interest in Project Fi, possibly to the point where it would make sense in future to port one's number again to another provider. That's a risk I'm quite happy to factor in: at this point, project Fi suits my admittedly atypical highly international mobile phone requirements perfectly.

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  1. This is incredibly easy to do and doesn't require getting a new SIM card. I tried Project Fi for about two weeks with a new number before ditching T-Mobile. All I then had to do was call customer service and tell them I wanted to port my T-Mobile number over to Project Fi. They asked for my T-Mobile account number, pin number and address. My old number was transferred in less than three minutes, although the time of the transfer will vary. []
  2. More commonly, a database is accessed by the receiving switch, in order to match the number to a name. If the name does not exist, then the city, State, Province (for Canada), or other designation may be sent. Some of these databases may be shared among several companies, each paying every time a name is "extracted". It is for this reason that mobile phone callers appear as WIRELESS CALLER, or the location where the phone number is registered (these vary based on which company owns the block of numbers, not the provider to which a number may have been ported). []
  3. You can use any device that supports Google Hangouts to send and receive calls and texts. This includes: Android smartphones and tablets, iOS devices such as iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch, Chromebooks, Windows computers and Mac computers. []
  4. On receiving my first monthly bill, I discovered I had been systematically charged for calls made while outside the US at the higher, cellular rate despite having always made these while on a Wi-Fi network. Even in the US, Project Fi does seem to systematically opt for cellular over Wi-Fi for phone calls: the only way to circumvent this at present seems to be to put the phone in Airplane mode before making calls. This seems to be a known issue. []
  5. This lets you send and receive standard texts—the "green bubble" kind—through the built-in Messages app on your iPad. []
  6. These included Google+, which was announced on 28th June, 2011, but not made available to Google Apps customers until the following 27th October. []
  7. Since Google Apps is now a paying service only, the reason for this is probably a noble one: Googel wants to be sure the remaining kinks in Project Fi are ironed out before it packages it in its flagship premium platform. []
  8. T-Mobile offers a plan called Simple Global, offering unlimited data in 140 countries, without tethering, at no extra charge with some of its existing plans. Pay-in-advance and Simple Choice No Credit plans are excluded as a credit check—not required by Google—is required to access this added benefit of T-Mobile's Simple Choice plan. Barring the absence of tethering, this is effectively almost the same offer as Project Fi. Also, T-Mobile, unlike Google, requires you to have the majority of your usage is on their U.S. network. Their Terms and Conditions state that service may be terminated for excessive roaming, misuse, or abnormal use. []