Google Fi may sound like some weird sort of initiation ritual (“Whoa, what happened to Rick? I heard he got Googlefied!”) — but if you can get past its silly-sounding name, the Google-owned wireless service can both save you money and step up your smartphone security situation.
Make no mistake about it: Google Fi — known as Project Fi up until 2018 — is a pretty unusual proposition. And it absolutely won’t make sense for everyone. If you fall into a certain style of smartphone usage, though, it can eliminate a lot of the downsides that typically come with a traditional wireless plan.
So how does Fi actually work, and could it be right for you? Let’s tackle it question by burning question and figure that out together.
What exactly is Google Fi — or Project Fi, or whatever you want to call it?
Google Fi is technically what’s known as an MVNO, or mobile virtual network operator. That’s a fancy name for an entity that provides wireless service — y’know, the thing that allows you to make and receive calls and use mobile data from that shiny rectangle in your pocket — without actually owning the network infrastructure behind it.
In other words, it’s kinda like a high-tech landlord. It doesn’t have its own network like AT&T or Verizon; instead, it has an arrangement with those same sorts of carriers that allows it to tap into their networks and repackage access to those pipes under its own brand and arrangement.
What networks does Google Fi actually use, then?
In the U.S., Fi uses a combination of T-Mobile, Sprint, and U.S. Cellular (so eventually just T-Mobile and U.S. Cellular, since Sprint and T-Mobile are in the process of becoming one and the same). That’s one of its distinguishing features, in fact: When you use Google Fi with a phone that’s designed for the service, it’s able to seamlessly switch you between those networks based on which one has the strongest service at any given moment.
Ooookay. How does this network switching mumbo-jumbo even work?!
Automatically and silently; on a day-to-day basis, you’ll never even think about it or be aware that it’s happening. Your phone just shows that you’re connected to Google Fi — but behind the scenes, the device continuously seeks out the best possible network for your location and bops you around as needed.
Will I get good coverage, then? How will it compare to what I have now?
That’s an important question — and unfortunately, there’s no simple nor universal answer, as it ultimately all depends on where you are and how Fi’s networks perform in your area.
So where to begin in figuring that out? Well, you can start by checking Google’s official Fi coverage map. It lets you put in specific addresses and see what kind of combined coverage you can expect for any given city or neighborhood. (Don’t forget to check any places where you travel in addition to your home front, particularly if you visit certain regions regularly for work.)
If you want to get even more specific, snag the free OpenSignal app for your phone. The app can show you detailed coverage maps for any set of networks in any area — based on user-submitted data — and even rank overall connectivity strength for different networks where you are (or where you might be).
Or, heck, you can simply ask around — or mull over your own past experiences. Think of it this way: If you know you can get solid service with, say, T-Mobile in your area, then Google Fi should be fine for you; the addition of the Sprint and U.S. Cellular networks as possibilities will only flesh out that coverage further and fill in any gaps. As long as at least one of Fi’s networks is a viable option wherever you are, you’re good to go.
Is there 5G? Please tell me there’s 5G. WHAT ABOUT 5G?!
Sheesh — calm down there, Paco. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but 5G is currently an overhyped mess that’s more about marketing than any meaningful, real-world value for most of us.
That being said, yes, you can get 5G with Fi (Fi-G?). As of this moment, Google says any unlocked phone that’s compatible with T-Mobile’s 5G network in the U.S. will have access to 5G with Fi — at least in theory, in the tiny and extraordinarily limited neighborhoods where 5G is actually now available.
What about the Wi-Fi part of the process? Doesn’t Fi also connect to public Wi-Fi networks sometimes?
Well, I’ll be. Go get yourself a cookie, you brilliant little koala. You’re on the ball today!
Google Fi does indeed incorporate public Wi-Fi networks into its coverage, provided you’re using a phone that was designed explicitly for Fi use. That’s another unusual and noteworthy part of its proposition. And just like with the mobile network switching, it all happens automatically and without any effort on your behalf.
Here’s how it works: Anytime you’re in range of a publicly available Wi-Fi network that Google has determined to be “high-quality and reliable” (a phrase you should probably not borrow for your next dating app profile), your Fi phone will switch over to that instead of using your regular mobile network. You’ll see it happen in retail establishments with open Wi-Fi networks or anywhere else that has Wi-Fi available without the need for any sort of sign-in.
Fi automatically encrypts your data anytime it’s connected to a network in that manner, using a special Google-provided virtual private network (VPN) — which means no one else on the network could snoop on your connection and see what you’re doing (in the way you often hear described as a risk of using public Wi-Fi networks).
But just like with the service’s mobile network switching, you don’t really think about any of that stuff in day-to-day use. With the Wi-Fi stuff, you do see a special icon in your status bar showing that you’re connected to a network with the Google-provided encryption enabled, but other than that, things just work — and you don’t put much thought into what network or type of network your phone has attached itself to at any given moment.
Is there any way I can get that same VPN encryption all the time?
Why, yes, my insightful amigo! Google added a feature into Fi in 2018 that enables always-on VPN protection for phones that (a) were designed explicitly for Fi and (b) are running Android 9 or higher. (Go get yourself another cookie. I’ll wait.)
It’s a pretty powerful perk, too, especially for anyone serious about Android security — which, ahem, we all should be. But if you ever transmit sensitive company data, always-on encryption is not only smart; it’s practically a necessity. And unless your company provides its own custom VPN service, you typically end up having to rely on a third-party service for said protection — something that’s costly, complicated, and difficult to evaluate and remain fully confident in over time.
With Fi’s built-in encryption option, that challenge is no more: Your VPN is provided directly by Google and bundled into your basic wireless service. All you do is flip a little toggle in the Fi app on your phone to turn it on, and you can then rest easy knowing all your data will always be encrypted, no matter where you are or what sort of network you’re using.
What about cost? Will I actually save money with this Google Fi service?
Again, there’s no simple universal answer, as everyone’s needs and habits are different — and the competition from other carriers is constantly evolving. There are, however, some good general guidelines that can help you figure out if Fi might make financial (get it — fi-nancial?!) sense for you.
Most broadly, I’d say this: Fi tends to be best for people who use a relatively small amount of mobile data. If you burn through gigs upon gigs of mobile data each month, you’d probably do better with a different sort of setup.
Now, specifically, here’s how it works: For an individual user, Fi charges you 20 bucks a month for your basic service, which gives you unlimited calling and texting. On top of that, you pay $10 for every gigabyte of mobile data you use each month — or whatever percentage of that number ends up being relevant, all the way down to the third decimal. So if, for instance, you used 2.202GB of mobile data in a month, you’d pay $22.02.
And crucially, you pay only for the amount of mobile data you actually use, without any sneaky fees or obnoxious add-ons other than the unavoidable taxes and government-mandated surcharges. In that 2.202GB example, then, your total bill would be $22.02 plus the $20 base cost and tax — so probably somewhere in the neighborhood of $50 or a little less, all combined. (Google says the taxes and surcharges vary by state but are generally between 10 and 20%.)
There are a couple of noteworthy asterisks here. First, remember that automatic Wi-Fi connection part of Fi’s service? Keep in mind that that actively works to help you use less mobile data all throughout the day. In assessing your typical monthly mobile data use, think about whether you tend to be in or near places with public Wi-Fi that might help reduce your regular usage, as you currently know it.
Second, Fi will charge you only up to the 6GB mark with an individual account. If you manage to go over 6GB of mobile data in any given month, you’ll still pay just $60 — $10 per gig times six — for that month’s usage. You can go all the way up to 15GB without paying another dime; once you hit that 15GB mark (something Google says less than 1% of individual Fi users ever do), you’ll have the choice to get slower than usual mobile data speeds at no extra cost or to start paying $10 per gig again for regular mobile data speeds from that point forward.
So, yeah: If you’re routinely using 25GB of mobile data each month, you’d probably come out ahead with a different sort of arrangement. (You might also want to think about ways to cut back on your data use!) But if you can keep your monthly usage in the lower to mid-single-digit gigabyte count, on average, you could end up saving quite a bit of dough with Fi’s pay-only-for-what-you-use setup.
Does Google Fi offer any group plans or anything like that?
It does! Fi rolled out a group plan option back in 2016, and it’s really a no-brainer if you have family members or employees or co-workers (in a relatively small organization) who are using the service and might want to combine.
The Fi group plan has the same core setup as the regular plan, but each additional person on the plan has a discounted base fee — $18 per person with two people, $17 per person with three, and $16 per person with four or more human mammals on the plan. Then you still pay that same per-gigabyte rate for however much data is used, collectively. And your “max payment” amount bumps up to 10GB for two people, 12GB for three, 14GB for four, 16GB for five, and 18GB for six people — so any usage past that point doesn’t cost you any additional money (though your speeds will still be slowed down if you go considerably over that mark).
The Fi app even has an option to set it up so that members of your plan get “billed” for their portion of the total each month and can pay you back with a couple of taps using Google Pay. As the primary account-holder, you also have the ability to pause any member’s service or data at any point in a billing cycle, should the need or inspiration (bwah hah hah) ever strike.
What about a large-group, enterprise-style option?
Curiously enough, no such option exists — not yet, anyhow. As of now, Google’s Fi group setup goes up only to a six-person max, so it might work for a small business but wouldn’t be well-suited for a larger company, at least not in any traditional arrangement. The one exception might be if an organization is doing a bring-your-own-device-style setup in which employees pay for their own service and then get reimbursed; in that situation, it might actually be an interesting and potentially advantageous option.
All of that being said, it sure seems like it’d make an awful lot of sense for Google to bring Fi more wholeheartedly into the enterprise environment, especially now that the company’s actively developing its Google Voice service, making Voice work more harmoniously with Fi, and positioning Voice largely as an enterprise-friendly G Suite add-on (more on that in a minute). With more and more emphasis being placed on G Suite and the scope of the G Suite services constantly expanding, you’d think Fi coming into the fold would be the next logical move to make.
Maybe one of these days?
Fi(ne). But does Fi have an “unlimited” option, too?
My, you’re astute. It does! Google added an “unlimited” option into Fi just last year, in fact. And it absolutely adds another (slightly overwhelming) variable into the equation for you to consider.
For an individual user, Fi’s “unlimited” plan runs 70 bucks a month. For a group plan with two people, it’s $60 per person per month; for three, it’s $50 per person per month; and for four or more, it’s $45 per person per month.
The “unlimited” arrangement also comes with 100GB of extra storage space for each person through Google One, which would typically cost you $20 a year — so that’s certainly something, though not a massive amount of added value.
Oh, and the reason why I keep putting “unlimited” in quotes? The plan, like most such offerings, isn’t actually unlimited in the fullest sense of the word; rather, it gives you up to 22GB of high-speed mobile data per person per month. If you go over that amount, you’ll still be able to use mobile data — but only at reduced speeds and with scaled-back video resolution.
All right, now I’m really confused. Should I do the “unlimited” plan or the pay-for-what-you-use option?
It ultimately just comes down to a matter of math — but unless you’re using a lot of mobile data in any given month, the pay-for-what-you-use option is probably gonna be your better bet. (It’s also the more exceptional option, whereas the “unlimited” setup is more traditional and similar to what other carriers offer.)
So let’s crunch some numbers: If you’re looking at Fi as an individual user, you’d have to plow through more than 5GB of mobile data on average per month for the “unlimited” plan to be the better deal. Once you hit 5GB of data, you’d be looking at a $70 monthly bill — with the $20 base fee and then $10 per gig times five — at which point you could have just paid the flat $70 fee for the “unlimited” option and gotten even more data for your money.
With two people in a plan, meanwhile, the “unlimited” plan would run you $120 total — so in the pay-for-what-you-use arrangement, you’d have to burn through 8.5GB of mobile data collectively to reach that same cost ($35 combined base fee plus $10 per gig times 8.5).
For perspective, my wife and I have a group plan together. If I look back over a recent 12-month period (before the pandemic, since things have been a bit odd as of late), our average monthly mobile data use, collectively, is just shy of 2GB per month. We have the occasional month where we go higher — say, if one or both of us is traveling and away from Wi-Fi networks and thus doing more mobile-data streaming than usual — but it all comes down to averages: If you use an average of 2GB of mobile data per month, your bill comes out to about $55 for two people. Even at 5GB in a month, you’d be looking at only $85 total for those same two people compared to $120 on the “unlimited” path.
And consider, too, that with the current pandemic situation, a service like Fi could save you some serious dough, since you’re probably using a lot less mobile data than you normally do. The very nature of Fi’s setup means you pay less when you use less, and thus this atypical period of usage will result in lower monthly bills — potentially much lower bills, if you’re mostly staying at home these days. (To wit: With no mobile data usage, your Fi bill would basically be 20 bucks a month for a single person.)
Everyone’s different and only you can do the math for your own specific needs, but realistically, I’d say that even in more normal times, the vast majority of folks probably aren’t gonna go through enough mobile data on average (or need to go through enough mobile data, particularly with Fi’s Wi-Fi-connecting feature in the picture) to make the “unlimited” option worthwhile.
What about roaming? Surely Fi screws you when you go out of the country, like every other carrier — right?
Amazingly, no; this is another one of the service’s exceptional features, particularly if you travel internationally with any regularity (you lucky son of a dolphin, you).
So here it is: Fi charges you the same standard per-gigabyte rate all over the world — in 200-plus countries. You get free texting in all those places, too. You do end up paying for cellular voice calls, but even those rates aren’t generally that bad, relatively speaking.
What if I live outside of the U.S.? Can I still sign up for Fi?
As of now, Google’s making Fi available only in the States — which technically means you have to activate the service within the U.S., using a U.S. address and credit card. Sorry, international pals.
Can I use my phone as a mobile hotspot?
Yes, indeedly. And there’s no extra charge for doing so; you just pay that same standard flat per-gigabyte rate for any data you use, regardless of how you’re sharing it or what device is actually tapping into it.
What if I want to put a SIM card into a tablet, laptop, or other connected device? How much does Fi charge for that privilege?
Nada — zero, zip, zilch, zebra. (That last word was a test to see if you were still paying attention. If you noticed it, congratulations. If not, WAKE UP!)
Google Fi lets you claim up to four data-only SIMs for your account and use them in any devices you want. You can order the SIMs free from the Fi app or website, and all you pay is the same per-gigabyte rate you’d pay for mobile data use from your phone. That means any extra devices essentially become extensions of your main Fi phone — which is another powerful perk that opens up plenty of interesting possibilities.
Contracts? Commitments? Cancellation fees? There’s gotta be some way this thing is out to get me…
Your skepticism is understandable, Mr. and/or Mrs. Crankypants, but I’m telling you: Fi doesn’t play those typical carrier games. Other than the fact that if you use a ton of mobile data per month, it probably won’t make financial sense to you — and that the “unlimited” option comes with a max-out point in terms of the truly unlimited, highest-possible-speed data — there really aren’t any hidden fees, asterisks, or other “gotchas” to report. (I’ve been using the service myself since 2015, so if there were any such catches, I’d certainly have noticed ’em by now.)
You pay ahead just one month at a time — so in August, for example, you’ll prepay for September’s usage based on your own estimate of how much mobile data you’ll need. But you still end up paying only for the amount you actually use; anything above that mark comes back as a credit on your next bill. Similarly, if you go over your estimated data usage, you get charged for the precise extra amount the following month.
Will any phone work with Fi?
More or less — and kind of.
Let me explain: Fi has a small number of phones that are explicitly designed for its service — including Google’s own Pixel devices, as you’d expect, and a handful of other specially adapted handsets. Those phones give you the full Fi experience, with the multi-network switching, the automatic public Wi-Fi connecting, and the always-on VPN protection option.
You can, however, also use Fi with most other reasonably recent Android phones or even iPhones. As long as a device is unlocked and compatible with T-Mobile’s network, it’ll almost certainly work on Fi — at least, from a technical perspective. That’s always been true, despite the fact that Google only recently started promoting it and officially supporting such widespread compatibility.
But take note: With a phone that isn’t designed explicitly to be used with Google Fi, you won’t get that aforementioned full Fi experience. That means no multi-network switching — instead, your device will connect only to T-Mobile, in the U.S. — plus no automatic public Wi-Fi connecting and no always-on VPN protection.
What you will get is the pay-only-for-what-you-use, hidden-fee-free billing setup, if you so choose, along with the standard-rate international data cost. But you’re essentially getting that only with regular T-Mobile service here in the States, which takes a bit of the shine off of Fi’s appeal.
Also, with new accounts, Google Fi is currently limiting you to a certain subset of approved devices. (You can search the full list here.) Even if an older phone is technically compatible with Fi — and would work with it, if you were to slap an active SIM card inside — Google won’t activate an account unless you have one of those officially supported models.
Do I have to buy a Fi-designed phone from Google Fi directly in order for it to work right?
Nope — you could buy a Pixel phone, for instance, from Google, Best Buy, or wherever, and it’d still work fine and give you the full Fi experience as soon as you slide that SIM card inside (or activate it electronically). The same applies for most other Fi-designed phones, too, though if you’re thinking of getting anything other than a device’s unlocked model, you may want to check the Fi compatibility site just to make sure it shows up as having full “designed for Fi” support.
Fi does sell all such devices directly through its website, with options for financing, trade-ins, and device protection plans. It also tends to run a fair amount of deals — including dropped prices and bundled-in Fi credits with new device purchases. So it’s certainly worth shopping around a bit and then seeing how Fi’s own offerings compare to what you find elsewhere.
Can I port in my existing number to Google Fi?
Yup — whether it’s a cell number or even a landline number. Nothin’ to it.
What if I’m using Google Voice now?
You’ve got a couple of options. First, you can simply transfer your Google Voice number over to Fi when you sign up — and you’ll still get most (but not all) of the significant Voice features, albeit in slightly different Fi forms (fo, fum). You can also always transfer your number back out later, if you decide to stop using Fi and want to go back to Google Voice down the road.
As of just this month, you can also have a separate Fi and Voice number on the same Google account, so you could keep your current number connected to Google Voice, sign up for a new number with Google Fi, and then use the Voice app on your Fi phone to make and receive calls and messages from your existing Voice number. (My head hurts.) I wrote a lot more on this subject and the intriguing possibilities it presents in this column, if you want to explore the area with me further.
Can I use any texting app I want with Google Fi?
Sure can. Officially, Google suggests using its own Messages app (naturally) or Hangouts (at least, for the moment), but any Android texting app will work just fine.
This all sounds dandy, Randy, but what if I need some help along the way?
Well, Gilby, lemme tell ya: Google Fi doesn’t have any physical retail stores (yet, anyway), but it does have 24/7 phone, chat, and email support — which has generally been relatively decent in my experience and far less likely to make me want to gouge my eyes out than most other carrier support systems I’ve had the displeasure of using.
Okay, I think I’ve got this. Very important query before we wrap up, though: Does Fi ever make you crave pie or rye?
And mai tai? Eh, guy?
I won’t dignify with a reply.
What about Thai? Or chicken thigh (after a fry)?
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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]
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