(Photo by Adam Bender)
BANGALORE, India — As the auto rickshaw whizzes down the streets of Bangalore, my taxi driver honks meekly at the thick traffic of cars, motorbikes and the occasional lumbering cow. I grip my smartphone hard so I don’t drop it out the open door.
Amazingly, I think, I’ve got full bars on Google’s Project Fi wireless network.
A few days later, I’m riding in a car down narrow rural roads in Goa, a tropical resort destination on India’s west coast. My wife’s uncle is driving, but he suddenly reveals that he’s forgotten his phone and needs directions to a beach shack.
My father-in-law consults his Apple iPhone, for which he’s paid $120 to AT&T for 800 MB of international data — but he can’t get Google Maps to function. I check my Google Nexus 5X smartphone, which, via Project Fi, includes international data roaming in India at the same $10 per GB rate as back home. Wireless service didn’t drop for the entire 30-minute journey, even as Maps navigated us by obscure landmarks like the shoebox-sized Mauli General Store.
Project Fi is an invitation-only wireless service by Google released late last year. Its most obvious advantage is a competitive, usage-based pricing scheme that doesn’t punish users for incorrectly estimating how much data they will use in a given month.
The prepaid service costs $20 for unlimited talk and text, plus $10 per GB of data. If a user pays $30 for 3GB of data at the beginning of the month, but ends up using less than that amount, Google refunds the difference. If the user goes over their data limit, there’s no fee — Google charges for the extra megabits at the standard rate.
Perhaps the biggest limitation for Project Fi at this time is phone selection. Project Fi only supports three phones — the Nexus 5X, Nexus 6 and Nexus 6P. Sorry, iPhone and Samsung Galaxy fans.
Cheaper, simpler roaming — but slower data speeds. That’s the tradeoff.
I decided to try Project Fi because of an impending trip abroad to India. My existing service, Cricket, didn’t allow roaming except to Mexico. And buying a SIM card when I got there sounded like a hassle. India would have required me to present two color passport photos, copies of passport and visa, proof of my home address, and a letter proving where I’d be staying.
So I took a look at Project Fi, which includes roaming for more than 125 countries. The only thing I would have to pay extra for was calls, but the rates looked relatively small — Google charged 20 cents per minute both in India and Germany, where I had a layover.
I could have spent a lot more on international roaming with America’s top two carriers. AT&T charges $120 for 800 MB of cellular data, plus 35 cents per minute for calls. Its cheapest roaming plan costs $30, but only offers 120 MB with $1-per-minute calls. For $10 per day, Verizon customers can take their existing plans abroad to 65 countries, but that would have added up to $140 for my two-week trip.
There was no hassle or large outlay of cash with Project Fi. When my airplane landed in Bangalore, the Project Fi app brightly greeted me, “Welcome to India … Project Fi has you covered here.”
The one catch is that Project Fi caps cellular speeds abroad at 256 Kbps over 3G networks. It wasn’t a big problem. While I didn’t attempt to watch YouTube videos, the service satisfied my primary reasons to bring a phone abroad — staying in touch with people back home, and accessing maps to help me get around on my own.
To be fair, most of the network issues I faced had more to do with India than Google. India still makes extensive use of 2G networks, and when my phone connected to EDGE networks, data often cut out completely — or at least failed my patience test. Even so, signal strength on 2G remained strong enough for calls and SMS, and I was impressed to find that I nearly always had coverage on the narrow country roads of Goa.
So how’d it stack up stateside?
Good coverage here in Philly, except on the subway.
Project Fi continued to work well when I returned home to Philadelphia.
Rather than invest in its own wireless network, Google has stitched a quilt composed of the Sprint and T-Mobile 4G cellular networks, as well as available public WiFi hotspots. The SIM card provided by Fi can automatically switch between networks to find the best connection.
While Sprint and T-Mobile don’t have as extensive the coverage as Verizon and AT&T, they tend to work well in urban areas, and T-Mobile in particular has been highly rated for its 4G speeds.
I had service nearly everywhere I went in Philadelphia, including Center City, Old City, West Philly, South Philly and down at the stadiums. The biggest gap in Philadelphia is that Project Fi has no service on SEPTA subway lines. This is because SEPTA has an exclusive subway contract with AT&T.
I experienced fast LTE speeds in most locations, though the actual speeds fluctuated widely. My lowest speed test was 4.4 Mbps down and 3.9 Mbps up, just south of South Street. However, not far away in Center City I got 16.1 Mbps down. I saw the highest speeds while walking around campus at the University of Pennsylvania: 17.9 Mbps down and 9.12 Mbps up.
Service reliability was not without hiccups. Occasionally, I noticed my phone connecting to 3G networks, but it always moved to 4G within minutes. Once, while crossing a bridge over the Schuykill River, the network dropped out completely — perhaps as it switched between Sprint and T-Mobile — and it reconnected soon after I reached the other side. Back at Penn, I experienced network congestion inside a building during a small conference with about 200 people.
On the plus side, the service supports WiFi calling and tethering on the Fi network. And Project Fi also offers some nifty software features that enhance the experience, like visual voicemail with automatic message transcriptions, and the ability to view SMS in Gmail and any device with Google Hangouts. It’s also got a handy app that tracks data usage and offers quick access to billing statements.
In a month of testing, I was impressed.
Project Fi had user-friendly service, consistent network coverage at home and abroad, and a pricing structure that came across as rational — something of a rarity in the telecom industry. (Believe me, I used to cover it extensively.)
What really won me (and others) over was international roaming. The ability to drop into most any country and have service right away — all without handing over serious coin — is a benefit that’s hard to beat.