Project Fi – first impressions

Up until two weeks ago, I had been a T-Mobile customer for about 2 1/2 years. I actually have been quite happy with the service. The coverage here in the Northeast corridor where I live is excellent, and I had occasion to use it in Germany last May. T-Mobile works well overseas with free SMS and 2G data and $0.20/minute phone calls. Pricing has also been reasonable, at least up to now.

However, ignoring the old adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, I have switched to Project Fi . Curiosity was probably the main reason. I had been reading a lot of mostly good things about Fi, and I really wanted to try it out on my Nexus 6p. There were also some other potential upsides. I really liked the idea of getting LTE data in Europe. If Fi can work as well as TMO in Europe but offer the same data speeds as I am getting in the US at no additional cost, that’s a big draw for me.

Also, since I am not normally a heavy mobile data user, Fi has the potential of significantly reducing my monthly mobile bill. Fi charges a flat $20 per month for unlimited voice and text plus $10 per GB for data. You choose a plan based on how much data you think you will use, and your bill will be adjusted the following month based on your actual usage. For example, if you estimate 1 GB of usage and only use 600 MB, you will get a credit of $4. If you use 1.2 GB in the same example, you will get an additional charge of $2.

Finally, I liked the idea of having three phone networks to draw on (T-Mobile, Sprint, US Cellular) for those areas where TMO alone might not do the job.

The case of the missing SIM

The most difficult part of making the transition was getting a SIM card. Signing onto Project Fi was dead simple, the last step of which was ordering a SIM card. I made the mistake of using the default (free) shipping method, which is something called FedEx Smartpost, a combination of FedEx and USPS. The SIM card shipped promptly but disappeared after the initial departure scan. I contacted FedEx, who put a tracer on the tracking number, but nothing came of it. Several days after the projected arrival date, I contacted Fi support, and they reset my account, so that I could order another SIM card. This time I paid for second day delivery, which worked as it should. There must be some kind of automatic system when there is a delivery failure, because about a week after I activated my (second) SIM, I received a notice that another SIM had been sent by FedEx Smartpost. That SIM arrived just a couple of days ago, more than 3 weeks after I made my initial order. If you decide to try Project Fi, my strong recommendation is to spend a couple of bucks to avoid FedEx Smartpost. It’s not worth the hassle.

Getting set up

With a SIM finally in hand, the activation process for me took less than 30 minutes from the time I put the SIM in my Nexus 6p to the time my number was ported over from TMO. You just run the Fi app, and everything happens pretty much automatically. If more information is needed, you receive clear prompts during the set-up process.

Once I was activated, Fi Network appeared in the notification shade, and I was in business. Fi spent a few minutes looking at available networks before finally settling on T-Mobile. In my travels around the Philadelphia metro region so far, Fi has always chosen TMO. That is not surprising, since Sprint and US Cellular are not particularly strong in this region. I’ll have to wait until I travel to other parts of the country to see if that changes.

Service so far has been reliable and every bit as good as I was getting from TMO directly.

WiFi

WiFi is an area that did not behave exactly as I expected it would, based on what I had read. I have a fast and strong WiFi signal at home, and I assumed that Fi would be using my home WiFi for voice and SMS. That is not the case. Voice calls and SMS texts continue to go over LTE, and data, of course, goes over WiFi, as with any smartphone. That is a different behavior than WiFi calling on T-Mobile, which actually routed calls over my home WiFi.

Project Fi’s use of WiFi seems to be mainly geared toward finding an alternate source of data transmission to minimize data use on the phone network (and, consequently, on your monthly bill). If you are out and about and you leave your WiFi on, which Fi recommends, Fi’s  WiFi Assistant will search for open WiFi networks. If it deems the WiFi safe to use, it will connect to it automatically with a built-in VPN, and you will see a key symbol in the status bar. This has happened to me once so far.

I have read conflicting accounts of how Google qualifies a public WiFi network. Some reports say that Google maintains some sort of database of qualified networks, while other reports describe some sort of test that the WiFi Assistant performs to determine if a network is qualified. I have not been a fan of connecting to public WiFi networks due to security concerns, but I am comfortable with connecting over the Fi VPN.

From what I gather, Fi will only use VoIP for phone calls as a last resort, when no mobile phone signal is available. You can, however, force a VoIP call by using the Hangouts dialer or turning on airplane mode then switching WiFi on. This seems to work OK, based on a couple of test calls I have made. Call quality will vary depending on the quality of of the WiFi network.

Signal Spy – a great companion app

Signal Spy, available for free from the Play Store, was specifically developed for and is an excellent companion app for anyone using Project Fi. Signal Spy tells you which mobile carrier you are connected to along with information the band, technology (LTE, HSPA, etc.) and signal strength. It also gives you information about any WiFi network you are connected to and provides a history of your connections. If you suspect Fi has not connected you to the best carrier for a given location, you have the option to use dialer codes to manually switch networks.

The interface is clean and resembles the look of the Project Fi app. You can choose to have an indication of the network you are connected to in the notification bar and on the notification shade.

Conclusion: Great so far!

So far, I am very happy with the Fi service, which I think will end up costing me about $20 less per month than I was paying on T-Mobile. How much you save, if anything, will vary depending on how much mobile data you use. If you use less than 2 or 3 GB per month, and you are in an area covered by the Fi mobile partners, this plan may be for you, providing you have a Nexus 6, 5x, 6p, or one of the new Nexus phones to be announced shortly.

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