Back in March, Google’s SVP of products Sundar Pichai teased the world by suggesting that his company would soon be getting into the carrier space; the notion alone caused quite a few eyebrows to raise. You see, the world of carriers is a fairly large one — you’d have a hard time arguing that there’s a monopoly — but in practice, our choices are woefully limited. While you can go out and select Verizon, U.S. Cellular, Straight Talk, Cricket, AT&T, T-Mobile, or Sprint, your bill won’t vary dramatically from one to the other. If you’re a smartphone user, you’re probably paying somewhere between $50 and $80 per line, and you’re probably paying for at least one amenity that you either don’t use or don’t value (like unlimited minutes or a carrier-provided navigation service).
When Google announced that it was coming into the fray, we had high hopes that it’d disrupt the status quo in a major way. T-Mobile’s “Uncarrier” moves have shaken the pot a bit, but not enough to spur widespread change. This week, Project Fi was announced, officially making Google yet another option for those in need of a mobile provider. The good news is that it’s competitive, it’s a fresh take on mobile, and it’ll make the incumbents take notice. The not-so-good news is that it hasn’t revolutionized wireless yet, but to Google’s credit, we’ll emphasize the “yet.”
What Is It?
Project Fi is a mobile provider. If you’re using any of the carriers we listed above, Fi aims to replace one of those and handle your calls, texts and data traffic. Technically, Fi is an MVNO, which is a super nerdy way of saying that Google itself hasn’t built a network of towers; rather, it’s leasing from the towers already owned by T-Mobile and Sprint. Phones relying on Fi will seamlessly switch between Sprint, T-Mobile, and even authorized Wi-Fi hotspots as you move about during the day, so the end user shouldn’t notice a thing since the phone will automatically latch on to whatever is fastest.
For starters, your phone number is in the cloud, which is a radical departure from the norm
It’s also fully prepaid, meaning that there are no long-term service contracts (and because of that, no discounts on phones). Each Fi plan requires that you pay $20 per month for unlimited talk and text in the States. Data is added at $10 clips, with each $10 getting you another 1GB. Interestingly, Google will actually refund you at the end of each month for partially unused buckets of data. For example, if your data budget is 3GB and you use 2.2GB, you’ll get $8 (for 800MB of unused data) to use next month to lower your bill.
For starters, your phone number is in the cloud, which is a radical departure from the norm. This is the first step in phasing out the conventional “call,” which relies on its own network. It’d make sense to move everything — calls, SMS, etc. — to an Internet-based protocol, which things like iMessage, WhatsApp, and Skype already rely on. Practically speaking, having your mobile number in the cloud enables you to make calls from anywhere with an Internet connection, anywhere in the world. Incoming calls can ring any device where you’re signed into Google Hangouts with the account you use for Project Fi. Outgoing calls can be made using the Hangouts app on Android and iOS devices, as well as the Hangouts widget inside Gmail if you’re on a computer. And, of course, you can make and receive calls normally, using your phone.
Speaking of phone, Fi only works with a single device at launch: the Nexus 6. That’s a fantastic Android device, mind you, but it’s a notable barrier to entry for those who do not already own one and weren’t planning on spending upwards of $649 to procure one. You can rest assured that Google’s working hard to make Fi compatible with all phones soon, but for now, it’s being offered to a fairly exclusive club.
Furthermore, you can’t just sign up for Fi. As with most Google products, you’ll have to request an invite after you see if your neck of the woods is covered by Sprint or T-Mobile’s umbrella. There aren’t any family plans at launch (though we suspect Google will add a few over time), and unlike most other carriers at the moment, Google won’t pay your early termination fees to get your business from another carrier.
Will It Change The World?
Maybe. The one nugget that we’ve left out thus far sheds a little light on what Google’s actual intentions are with this. The $10 per GB isn’t just for high-speed data in America; it’s also for data in over 120 countries. Granted, not every country is included at the moment (Tuvalu and Marshall Islands are sadly omitted), but a shocking amount are. Even places like French Polynesia, Myanmar, Iran, and Ascension Island are supported. Granted, speeds are limited to 3G in international destinations, but that’s plenty fast for navigation, email, VoIP calls and even light work sessions.
Without question, the ability to use data in 120+ countries as if you were still standing on U.S. soil is the most groundbreaking part of Project Fi.
T-Mobile has tried something similar with its postpaid plans, but its international footprint is smaller. Plus, speeds are limited to 2G, which is too slow to handle anything beyond basic messaging and email, and tethering to a computer to get actual work done isn’t feasible (plus, faster speeds require the purchase of an upgrade pass). Without question, the ability to use data in 120+ countries as if you were still standing on U.S. soil is the most groundbreaking part of Project Fi. It’ll initially only impact a small subset of people — the handful of U.S. citizens that travel abroad so routinely that this would fundamentally make their life easier and smoother during times when they aren’t home.
But in time, the breaking down of international borders as it pertains to data, knowledge, and access could alter entire economies. It’s not uncommon to hear horror stories of AT&T users heading to France for a week and coming home to roaming bills in the thousands of dollars. If Google can manage to democratize data across the world, lowering the cost to a point where even poorer smartphone owners can afford data everywhere, it could also mean great things for those coming online in developing nations. In many countries throughout Africa and Asia, the majority of the population doesn’t earn enough income to buy data for their phones. That inability to join the Internet is a major setback in their march to prosperity.
This single element of a broader plan may not look like much, but when you consider that it’s coming from Google — the same company that’s sending Internet-enabling balloons over rural parts of the world — the mission begins to crystalize. Google is intent on connecting as many people as it can to the Internet. Sure, it’ll make money by advertising to those people once they’re online, but that’s beside the point. Efforts like these (and those by Facebook’s Internet.org) stand a chance at smashing through established cost barriers as it pertains to knowledge access. And that makes Fi quite a bit more than just another cellphone plan.
Editor’s Note: For most of us, the wide world of technology is a wormhole of dubious trends with a side of jargon soup. If it’s not a bombardment of startups and tech trends (minimum viable product, Big Data, billion-dollar IPO!) then it’s unrelenting feature-mongering (Smart Everything! Siri!). What’s a level-headed guy with a few bucks in his pocket supposed to do? We’ve got an answer, and it’s not a ?+Option+Esc. Welcome to Decrypted, a new weekly commentary about tech’s place in the real world. We’ll spend some weeks demystifying and others criticizing, but it’ll all be in plain English. So take off your headphones, settle in for something longer than 140 characters and prepare to wise up.