Google Fi: Here's How the Carrier Turned Its Early Adopters Into Obsessives

"Cell towers were down, no one could do anything, but I still had access to Google Fi."

by James Dennin

Google’s foray into the wireless carrier business took a big step forward this week, changing its name from Project Fi to Google Fi and launching on an additional 84 phones. Even devotees of the Apple ecosystem can now make use of Google’s new carrier, as long as they have an iPhone model that’s newer than 2016’s iPhone SE.

There are a few caveats before you make the leap. Google Fi is still a Mobile Virtual Network Provider, meaning that it basically piggybacks off of four existing networks (Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular, and Three), based on whichever one offers the best coverage at a given moment. The thing is, not all of the phones that are compatible with Google Fi have the ability to network-hop in this fashion, meaning that some customers will essentially use the T-Mobile network or a wifi connection.

Still, these caveats have done little to dampen the enthusiasm of Fi’s early adopters, who can border on obsessive. The main clincher, according to a four longtime customers Inverse spoke to for this story, is the value: By only charging you for the data you use, as opposed to holding you to a contract, all the customers we spoke to said they’ve effectively halved their phone bills for service that’s sometimes even more reliable than traditional carriers.

"If you don’t use all your data, you’ll actually get money back

“If you don’t use all your data, you’ll actually get money back which is really cool,” says Tyler Philbrook, a self-employed blogger and social media manager who runs a personal finance site called I Am the Future Me. “Around Hurricane Irma, all the electricity was down, cell towers were down — no one could do anything — but I still had access to Google Fi.”

The Google Fi coverage map as shared on the website.

How Google Fi Saves You Money

Google Fi’s pay-for-what-you-use pricing model is only one of the ways it helps cut down on costs. Eric Rosenberg, who runs a site called Personal Profitability, has been on the service for three years, the longest of any of the customers we spoke to, and said the service has saved him hundreds over the years.

“My cell phone bill went down by half,” he says. “It felt weird switching to a pay per gig model, but … I work at home, so I’m at wifi pretty much all the day, so my data bill is so low … As long as your’e not streaming heavy data use content, your bill is not going to be that high.”

But the biggest savings are probably going to be for heavy travelers, say the Fi users we interviewed. Travelers get a lot more value out of the service because they can still use their phones to send messages and make calls without having to enroll in a costly international roaming plan, explains Jonathan Mendonsa, who runs a site called ChooseFI (that’s FI as in “financial independence.”)

“I have been in Cape Town, Greece, Vienna — seamless service — it’s astonishing,” Mendonsa says. “In Greece, we were on a cruise bouncing around the islands, and the cruise was charging 20 bucks an hour to use wifi but I just had it any time we were by land.”

Google Fi turned its first customers to ambassadors with a pay-by-the-gig model. 


So, What Are the Drawbacks?

The main drawback that consumers need to be aware of is that one of the main selling points, Fi’s ability to facilitate international travel, will only work on compatible phones (a group which does not, at present, include the iPhone.)

Unless you’re using a Pixel phone, a recent LG model, a Moto G6, an Android Moto X4, or one of a few Nexus models (check the full list here), you won’t be able to island hop the Mediterranean without losing service. Philbrook also noted that unlike the big carriers, you probably won’t be able to get a free or deeply discounted phone when you enroll in a plan, though Google’s generous financing terms do make up for this a bit, he says.

“Google has a really great financing option, I think ours was like $27 a month extra and there’s no interest on that, so that’s really great,” he says. “But you do have to pay for the phone outright.”

Finally, you might be able to expect the same reliability as you would on a larger network, mainly Verizon. Then again, Chris Ball, a Michigan-based financial planner said that the company has made great strides toward plugging coverage gaps in the two years he’s been on the service.

“As an early adopter there were more issues, but they clean them up so quickly,” Ball says. “You still get the power of a massive company.”

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