Google's Project Fi isn't so much a revolution in pricing as it is a rethinking of how a carrier should work.
Not many people have a strong liking for the way their current mobile carrier operates. You can find the same stories about bad customer support, data speeds and phones related to all of the major carrier in the U.S., and Google's hoping to get some of those disgruntled customers to come try its new offering called Project Fi.
The premise is pretty simple: Pay for the data you plan to use, and get a refund the next month for data you don't end up using. Your money gets you access to the Sprint and T-Mobile networks, as well as thousands of Google-certified WiFi hotspots to help reduce mobile data usage. The network extends around the world with the same pay-for-use model while roaming, and no matter what your phone preference is you can only get a Nexus 6 right now.
It's understandable, and downright intuitive — but let's see how the value actually compares to the other carriers.
A pricing and feature breakdown
|Service||Project Fi||T-Mobile||AT&T||Verizon||Sprint||AT&T GoPhone||MetroPCS||Simple Mobile|
|International roaming||Yes||Yes||Yes, paid||Yes, paid||Yes||No||No||No|
The above chart gives you a basic breakdown of how Project Fi pricing and features compare to other popular carriers. Of course we're showing AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon and Sprint here, but have also thrown in three leading prepaid offerings, GoPhone, MetroPCS and Simple Mobile, that offer the most "postpaid-like" features such as full-speed data, minimal restrictions and a choice of data plans. (Other prepaid offerings, like Boost and Virgin, are excluded because of their limiting BYOD requirements.) While there are dozens of other prepaid carrier offerings out there, for the sake of simplicity we've limited this to seven choices — we'd be here for weeks trying to compare every single carrier out there.
Project Fi offers the cheapest starting point of any carrier, with more flexibility.
The pricing shown here is what it'd cost you to get that individual plan (not including taxes and fees) on a monthly basis, without a contract, and while paying full freight (or financing) for your Nexus 6 (or other high-end phone were Project Fi to drop that restriction). Of course no two carrier plans are exactly identical, so we're going to do our best to stick to the broad strokes and selling features of each plan.
From the get-go you can see where all of these plans start. The "base" charge for Project Fi is just $20 per month to get you unlimited calls and texts, and start paying for data at the rate of $10 per GB. You choose ahead of time what you expect your data usage to be, and if you stay under what you paid for you'll receive a prorated amount refunded back to your next bill — conversely if you go over what your expected usage was, you'll be charged at a normal rate and that extra usage will land on your next bill instead.
When data usage gets higher, other carriers start to make more sense.
At the cheapest level, Project Fi beats out every other carrier — base charges and 1GB of data is just $30 per month (which you can only match on MetroPCS if you don't factor in the $5 per month hotspot charge). Moving up to an average data usage amount for many, 3GB per month, the gap narrows — Project Fi is $50, with T-Mobile at $60, AT&T at $65 and Simple offering 10GB for just $5 more. Once you get to higher data usage amounts, Project Fi isn't so competitive — at 5GB the pricing is the same as T-Mobile, and at 10GB AT&T and Verizon are cheaper.
Of course Project Fi doesn't offer any sort of unlimited option, either, where Sprint and T-Mobile's own plans start to come into play at $60 and $80, respectively. Once you pass those milestones, which would coincide with 4 and 6GB of usage on Project Fi, you're going to keep paying per gigabyte where you could potentially use all you want for the same price elsewhere.
Who Project Fi might make sense for, and who should look elsewhere
Simplicity in billing is probably one of Project Fi's biggest features, as you pay for data at the same rate no matter how much you use every month. As you can see in the earlier table, price-per-gigabyte varies wildly between the carriers, and varies even within the same carrier depending on how much you use. You'll also notice all of the blank spots, where carriers just don't offer data at each gigabyte milestone — on Project Fi you not only pay by the gigabyte, you're charged at the same rate down to the megabyte so you never "overpay" for data.
Billing simplicity is probably one of Project Fi's biggest features, as you pay for data at the same rate no matter how much you use.
Of course T-Mobile and AT&T are both in a similar space with Data Stash and Rollover Data, letting you carry over unused data for 12 months or one month, respectively. That's not quite the same as getting a full-on refund for unused data or simply paying for exactly what you use each month, but they are roughly comparable depending on how much data you use per month.
You also need to consider what carriers work best where you live and spend the most time. Project Fi combines Sprint, T-Mobile and healthy amounts of Wifi to give the largest coverage map it can, but if you live in an area that doesn't have strong service from either of those two carriers it isn't going to be worth it for you. Funnily enough, Sprint and T-Mobile also offer very similar WiFi calling features as Project Fi, so you do have choices in that arena as well.
So who is Project Fi shaping up to work for? First off, this is clearly aimed at individuals. Just like similar forward-thinking operators, Google has tailored these plans to a single person with just one line — even couples with two lines (or one person with a tablet or hotspot) will likely be better off looking elsewhere and saving money in the process.
Project Fi will really only make sense for individual plan holders who appreciate the simplicity, and like the Nexus 6.
Those who travel internationally may also want to take a look at Project Fi. You get charged at the same exact rate for data in 120+ countries (powered by T-Mobile's roaming deals), and though speeds are limited to 256kbps — higher than what T-Mobile and Sprint currently offer — it's always great to have data accessible just about anywhere at sane prices. AT&T and Verizon are still charging pretty heftily for data of any kind when abroad.
Finally this will also hinge on your feelings about the Nexus 6. If you already have one then you may just be waiting for the invite from Google, but if you don't you'll have to consider the $649 starting price for the device whereas your current phone may already be able to work on another carrier you're considering jumping to. And of course the Nexus 6 may just be too big for some people, or not offer wanted features — and at this point we expect Project Fi to stay exclusive to this one phone for some time.
Not revolutionary, but certainly appealing
The launch of Project Fi may not mark as big a sea change in the U.S. wireless industry as we expected, but that doesn't mean it can't find its place and be a great choice for some people. Google's shot at becoming a wireless carrier isn't blowing anyone away in just pricing, data offerings or stand-out features — the hope is to draw you in with a complete approach that's competitively priced, simple to understand and easy to start and stop whenever you please. There's certainly value in that combination.
How easy Project Fi ends up actually being to use and be billed for will come with time, but right now it looks like it'll be worth seriously considering for many people.