Describing Google Fi in technology terms is difficult because it’s one part cellular service, that works pretty much like any other phone, one part mobile WiFi hotspot and one part Google Services platform. The service has been available to beta testers for over a year and, like all things Google, was rolled out to the public with little fanfare.
Google Fi, technically called Project Fi, closes the loop between voice, data and cloud services and combines them all into a slick, easy to use interface that runs on either Nexus 5 or Nexus 6 smartphones running Android. Fi combines voice, text and Google services like Hangouts and Now into an integrated package. Layered over the top are voice activated features which, at least initially, show promise but still need work.
WiFi Calling, Device Independence
The slickest feature of Google’s phone service is the way it switches between WiFi, Sprint or T-mobile to get the strongest signal. When you’re at home, your phone locks onto your WiFi connection for voice and data. Even after downloading several apps and setting my phone up, my data usage was zero MB because Google used my home WiFi for all the heavy lifting. Google also lets you do things with your phone other carriers won’t, like using your phone as a hotspot, tethering other devices and integrating video conferencing, calling and text through any device.
Out Of The Box
For a limited time Google is offering a Nexus 5 phone at a buyout price of $199 with activation. Unlimited domestic calling and texting anywhere is $20 a month, plus whatever amount of data you want to sign up for initially. There are two unique features to Google’s data plan: One is it works anywhere for the same price. So, if you travel between any of the 120 different countries that support the service, your data plan travels with you, though international voice calling costs extra. The other unique feature is Google refunds you for any unused data. That’s a credit, not a rollover. So, if you’re paying for 2 gigs of data and only use 1 gig, you get a $10 credit that month. You’re also only paying for cellular data usage. Data that comes over WiFi doesn’t count toward your monthly total.
The package is deceptively small and contains only the phone, which seems impossibly slim, a power cord and a SIM. The instructions look more like alien hieroglyphs so it’s probably lucky that the setup is all pretty automatic. The only tricky part is inserting the SIM into the phone and there’s a video demonstrating how to do that. While the setup process did sync my Google account and apps, it didn’t copy over my data files, leaving me to figure out what kind of cord I needed to move them manually.
It Actually Started With Grand Central
Google actually made the first step into telephony when it bought an upstart company called Grand Central and shaped it into a VOIP phone service called Google Voice. The one downside to Google Fi if you already use Voice is your old Google Voice number stops working, immediately. It seems like Google could at least give you a little rollover time.
My other minor ding on the service is the voice command feature, which would be hugely useful if it worked better. The voice activation feature doesn’t always hear commands accurately, something that can be surprisingly annoying. I also haven’t been able to figure out how to customize voice command actions, which would be awesome.
The magic is the way Fi can route calls between WiFi and either cellular service seamlessly. The service also hands off calls between Sprint and T-mobile seamlessly and that really is amazing. Even if you can’t get a cell signal, if you can’t get near a WiFi hotspot, you can call anywhere.
In many ways Google Fi is the future of mobile communications that turns the entire cellular network into little more than a giant broadband provider. Instead of a cellular phone, telephony is just another app that runs on wireless data as a service. Fi is not a revolution in cellular technology but it’s most definitely an evolution. And it saved me $10 a month from my old plan, plus the data credit, so I’m definitely happy.