Google has profoundly changed many parts of our world. Its eponymous search engine, of course. Its Gmail service, which now dominates the email field the same way Google’s search engine dominates search. Other things are not so obvious but still important – for example, it “rewrote the book” on how to monetize and advertise on the internet with its Adsense and Adwords programs.
One of its new ventures is providing wireless cell phone service. It has already taken over the smart phone world in terms of providing the world’s most commonly used OS – Android, having completely vanquished Blackberry and Nokia and Microsoft’s failed attempts at coming up with competing phone operating systems, and now relegating Apple’s iOS to an ever smaller high-end high-priced niche. Google has also experimented with cell phone hardware, with varying degrees of success, first offering the Nexus range of phones at moderate and bargain prices, and then going upmarket and selling phones under the Pixel rather than Nexus brand, with high-end features and moderately high prices too (but still massively less than you’d pay for an iPhone, of course!). With both the earlier Nexus and now the new Pixel brands, the phones are actually made by regular phone manufacturers such as LG and HTC and more recently Foxconn, the same company that makes the iPhone.
Noting Google’s ultimate objective of knowing all about us, everywhere we are, and everything we do, is it any surprise that they’ve decided to add the final part of the modern phone triad. They already offer hardware and operating systems, leaving only the actual wireless service itself. Which, after that wide-ranging introduction, brings us to their Fi service – a new type of wireless phone service. (Note to people trying to defend the little that remains of their privacy – in reality, we suspect that subscribing to Fi probably doesn’t tell Google much more than it already knows by owning the phone’s OS and most likely providing your mail service and browser too.)
Google Fi is a new type of wireless phone service, similar to that you’d buy from AT&T, Verizon, or whoever else, but with some differences (improvements) in terms of how it works and how it is charged. Google first started experimenting with Fi in April 2015, and due to its popularity, was initially an “invitation only” service. It became an open service anyone could join in March 2016, but the service had some limitations that restricted its wider appeal.
To start with, it would only work with one phone – the Nexus 6. It subsequently added Pixel phones too, and then in November 2018 expanded its range still further, and for the first time introduced support for iPhones (the 5S and for all more recent models), although the iPhone support is still a bit rough around the edges.
I’d been eagerly awaiting a broadening of the phones Fi supports, and so after this good news, I finally signed up for Fi, and have been using it for a couple of months. I’ve experienced no problems at all, and enjoyed splendid service. On the other hand, I’ve felt increasing dissatisfaction with T-Mobile, which seems to have forgotten about its temporary blaze of glory as an “uncarrier” with innovative and great priced services, and now has lapsed back to become much the same as the other services.
After this careful testing – because Fi seemed too good to be true – I finally switched 100% over to Fi a week ago, and continue to be delighted every day with the change. So now is the time to share this wonderful new service with you.
Update – mid April 2019
I now have three billing cycles of experience with Fi. My earlier hopeful but cautious enthusiasm for the service has been confirmed, with no problems at all. Indeed, although I’ve had no problems, I also got a $50 “service credit” for some issue my phone is apparently having that I didn’t even notice or have any usage impact from at all!
I’ve also loved the ability to turn either data or all service on and off, instantly, line by line. This made for a helpful “consequence” when my teenage daughter needed a response to a disagreement between us. Nothing like reducing a teenager’s phone to a voice only device to register on their personal Richter scale of consequences!
However, my daughter also loves Fi, too. She and her mother landed in St Petersburg, Russia recently. My daughter’s Fi phone instantly connected to a local Russian network, giving voice calls and stable fast data. Her mother’s phone did not. They got to where they were staying, and realized they didn’t have the correct password for the Wi-Fi. A problem for her mother, with no internet access, but not for my daughter, enjoying seamless and fast/reliable internet access, just the same as if she were back home here.
Fi’s international roaming and data service has been shown to be every bit as excellent as they promise. We are both delighted (and her mother envious!).
The other feature I really love is being able to activate wireless data on all my tablets and not pay fixed costs per month, just usage charges as and when I use them. This is very convenient.
Explaining the MVNO Concept
Google doesn’t have its own cellular network. Instead, it is what is called an “MVNO” – a Mobile Virtual Network Operator, which is a fancy way of saying it rebrands and resells someone else’s wireless service. There are lots of MVNOs in the US – for example, Cricket, MetroPCS, Mint, Straight Talk and Tracfone.
Just like how generic goods in the supermarket cost less than branded goods, even when made by the same company that produces the branded equivalent, so too it is common for MVNOs to be less expensive than the “Big Four” networks – AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint.
Sometimes you get poorer coverage with an MVNO, or poorer service, or fewer “special features”.
Google’s approach however is different, and there are no trade-offs, only benefits and improvements.
Google’s Approach to Ensuring Your Phone Always Has Coverage
Google has done several different clever things so that a Fi phone might actually have better coverage than a regular phone on another network. It has signed MVNO agreements with T-Mobile and Sprint (and also with US Cellular and Three), and the phone will automatically switch between carriers depending on which has best coverage, wherever you are. You don’t realize this, it happens automatically and there’s no obvious indicator on your phone to tell you which carrier your phone is connected to – but there is a secret code you can key into your phone to find out, if you’re ever interested, and another secret switch to force your phone to use a particular network.
We know some of you find such “beneath the hood” stuff fascinating, so we reveal these two secret codes immediately below to our kind and loyal supporters. If you’re not yet a supporter, please consider becoming one – you get instant access to these codes and a wide range of other extra features on our site, too.
Including Sprint on the list of participating carriers added some issues because Sprint uses a different type of service to that of T-Mobile, and that is part of the reason why not all phones work perfectly with Fi, because not all phones are compatible with both the CDMA type service used by Sprint and the GSM used by T-Mobile and AT&T (and most other wireless services, almost everywhere else in the world).
In addition to swapping between these carriers automatically and invisibly, the Fi service also will connect to compatible Wi-Fi hotspots (Google says there are over 2 million of these) and use them for both data service and also for voice calling too. We don’t know if this is happening or not, because we never notice it while we’re traveling around, but we have noticed our monthly data usage is down on what it used to be with T-Mobile, before.
This is again an automatic thing, and in our case, has a very important advantage. At home, we have poor coverage from all the wireless carriers due to being in a little valley which blocks us from most of the cell towers, but it doesn’t matter, because our phone connects through our wireless router, and works just the same as it would if connecting directly to a wireless carrier.
The net result seems to be that Google’s Fi service has better coverage than any other service.
The Great Value of Fi’s Service Charges
Now for the point that was the real deal point for us. Fi is very fairly priced, and also very simply priced.
Basic Per User Charge for Voice and Texting
The first user pays $20/month for unlimited voice and text calls within the US.
The second user pays an extra $15/month for the same service.
A third through sixth user (we think six is the maximum at present on a single account) also pay an extra $15/month. If you want more than six, presumably you start up a second account.
Internationally, in any of some 200 different countries (other than North Korea, we’ve yet to find a country that isn’t included, even out-of-the-way places like Kazakhstan participate) phone calls are 20c a minute and text messaging remains fully free.
If you’re in the US and want to call another country, you pay an international toll rate per minute of your call. But this rate is very minor – for example, to call a landline in most countries (most of Europe, China, Mexico, Australia, etc), you pay 1c/minute. Sadly for me as a New Zealander, New Zealand is more expensive. Well, not really that sadly – it is 2c a minute. Still a laughably trivial amount.
Russia is 3c. And Kazakhstan is 8c.
Calling cell phones invariably costs more, because in most other countries, it is normal for the person calling a cell phone to pay for the cost of that call, not for the person receiving the call to pay for it.
Calls to Canada are free.
Variable Charge for Actual Data Used
As for data, you pay $10 per GB of wireless data you use each month. You don’t pay for any data that goes through Wi-Fi. If you are a single user, your charges are capped at 6GB (ie $60) – if you go over 6GB, the rest is free. If you go over 15GB in a single month, Google might slow down the data speed for the rest of the month.
The slower speed is 256kbps. If you need faster speed for the extra data you’re using (and we can’t really think of how you’d go over 15GB of usage in a month), you simply select an option in your account so that for the extra fast data, you start paying the $10/GB rate again.
The $10/GB is pro-rated if you use less than 1GB (or more than 1GB). So if you only use a few MB of data, then you only pay a few cents. If you use 1.5GB, you pay $15. You never get charged for data you don’t use.
We also noted that our wireless data usage has dropped. We guess this is because we are sometimes invisibly being shifted from cellular/wireless data to a nearby Wi-Fi hotspot. Two of us (my daughter – thank goodness texting is free! – and I) are paying less than $40/month for everything at present.
Best of all, the $10/GB fee applies internationally as well as within the US, and gets you the fastest possible data that is available for you and your phone, wherever in the 200+ included countries you are.
If you have two users, then the 6GB cap increases to 10GB, and for each extra user, the chargeable cap increases by another 2GB. But the very good news is the 15GB data cap is per user, not in total, so two users might end up with 29.9GB of data for the month, with no slowdown, and only pay for 10GB.
To explain, here are some monthly usage scenarios for an account with two users. In all cases, the two user account would be charged $35/month for the two users and all their voice/texting, and then these variable amounts for data.
|User A uses||User B uses||Data Billing|
|0.1 GB||0.2 GB||Total of 0.3 GB, charge of $3|
|7 GB||2 GB||Total of 9 GB, charge of $90|
|8 GB||3 GB||Total of 11 GB, cap at 10 GB so charge of $100|
|12 GB||14 GB||Total of 26 GB, cap at 10 GB, so charge of $100|
|13 GB||18 GB||Total of 31 GB, cap at 10 GB, so charge of $100|
User A gets all data at high speed
User B gets 15 GB at high speed and 3 GB at slower speed
Within the US, Fi’s fees are both simple and easy to understand and also the most reasonable of any carrier we’ve compared them to. If you travel internationally, the benefit of Fi just becomes even massively greater.
While we don’t travel internationally a lot, when we do, there are so many traps and tricks to getting good and affordable phone and data service with any existing wireless company. T-Mobile used to have a great service, but works much less well these days (to the point of almost totally not working at all) while becoming much costlier, and so we needed to find an alternate and better service.
It is now such a huge relief to not need to do anything, and simply to continue using the same phone, the same way, and with the same fast data, and apart from maybe some few minutes of voice calls, at no extra cost at all.
The Phones to Use with Fi
Most phones will now work with Fi, although only some will support the switching to Sprint as well as other carriers. Back in February there were five phones that Google will sell you, usually at slightly less than full retail price, that are fully compatible – the Pixel 3 and 3XL, the Moto G6 and Android One Moto X4, and the LG V35 ThinQ and G7 ThinQ phones. I bought a couple of Moto G6 phones – a 4GB/64GB one from Amazon and a 3GB/32GB one from Google. Both work perfectly and I can’t really think of any reason to spend any more on a more expensive phone. Furthermore, the 3GB (memory) and 32GB (storage) phone is indistinguishable from the 4GB/64GB phone (particularly after I added Micro-SD cards to both) so there’s no need to get what seems to be a higher specification phone.
The Moto G6 from Google is $199 and has a $100 credit after you’ve activated and used your Fi for a month, reducing its net cost down to a mere $99.
At the time of updating in April, it seems they are busy refreshing their model line-up. The Moto G6 has been replaced by the Moto G7, and some of the other phones have disappeared. We continue to be delightfully happy with our G6 phones, and expect the G7 to be as good or slightly better.
If you have a phone you want to keep (or want to buy), check on the Fi website to see if it is compatible, and if it is, check with your current carrier to make sure it is unlocked (or have them unlock it if not) and then maybe use that phone. Otherwise, why not get a Moto G6 from Google.
Transferring Your Current Phone Number
You probably remember the “bad old days” before number portability, where changing your cell phone carrier meant losing your earlier phone number. Then the FCC mandated that numbers be able to be transferred, and for a while the cell phone carriers passively resisted this by making the process as complicated and slow as possible.
But now, it has become so much easier. I simply keyed my T-Mobile account details into my Fi phone, and within three minutes, my T-Mobile phone number had switched over and was now active on the new Fi phone.
It doesn’t get any easier than that.
Converting from an iPhone
Fi has instructions on how to convert from an iPhone to an Android phone, if you are doing that at the same time (as I indeed did).
One thing that needed a bit of further explanation was how to have text messages from people on iPhones come to your new Android phone. Apple tries to be “helpful” and if it “knows” you had an iPhone in the past, it sends messages to your phone number not through the standard SMS system but through their iMessage system. You don’t even notice that normally, but when you’re no longer using your iPhone, that means in some cases you’ll not get text messages.
So you need to go to this page and de-register your iPhone’s (former) phone number from Apple so that if an iPhone user sends a message to that phone number, Apple now knows to send it via regular SMS.
This has long been an Achilles Heel for anything to do with Google. They seem to hate the thought of actually talking with any of their users/customers, and for a while, Fi was no different. It was close to impossible to find a phone number to call, and you were forced to instead post anguished urgent messages on open support forums, hoping someone would sensibly answer your question. For a while, in late December, they even switched their customer service off entirely, because they were “too busy”!
But Google is slowly coming to understand that if it wants to be a “real” wireless carrier, it needs to provide “real” customer service, and now it is very easy to get help. There is almost no waiting, and the person you speak to generally seems to be not only American but also a highly intelligent Google type person, rather than someone in an off-shore call center reading a script and not really understanding anything you say or ask.
As long as they continue with this new vastly improved level of customer service, they deserve full marks for this.
Bonus Feature – Tablets and Other Data Only Devices
Maybe you have a tablet that can be connected to wireless data as well as Wi-Fi. Most wireless companies will charge you an extra something a month to add data service to each additional device you wish to use.
With Google Fi, you can add data only devices (ie no phone calling or texting) for free, paying only for the data they use as part of your current plan. There’s no extra monthly connection fee; heck, they don’t even charge you an insulting $30 or something for a SIM and to “activate” the device onto your account. They’ll send you the SIM for free and activate it at no charge, too.
Your maximum monthly amounts don’t increase. If you’ve an account just for you, your 6 GB data cap stays the same, even if you have multiple tablets connected.
This is a great extra feature. Although the first iPad I bought did not have wireless data capabilities, the next one did, and I’ve found the convenience of being able to use the tablet everywhere, not just where there’s open Wi-Fi, to have become another essential convenience.
Bonus Feature – Wireless Hotspot
Another great thing is that your data use is unrestricted. If you want to turn your phone into a wireless hotspot – a mini Wi-Fi router – and share your wireless data with other devices, you can.
Other wireless companies don’t let you do that, and require you to pay more to directly connect other devices to their service. Google doesn’t care how you use the data they provide. This makes their service much more flexible and convenient, and spares you the need to incur extra payments to connect extra devices, particularly devices that you seldom/rarely need to connect to the internet.
Better coverage. Less cost. A bill you can understand. No laundry list of extras and options and confusing choices of service plan. And great customer service.
That’s a perfect score in every possible category.
Did I leave anything out? Oh yes, one thing. As you rush to sign up for Google Fi (and you surely should), please click this link (or any of the other links in this article) to do so. It will give you a $20 credit, and, ahem, it will give me a $20 credit too.
If – like me – you’re hesitant to change carriers, do the same as I did. Sign up and try it on a spare/extra phone, while leaving your regular service intact. If you decide, as I did, that the Fi service truly is as great as it seems to be, then you can turn off your existing service and switch your number over. Worst possible case, you’ve spent $20 or so for a month of service (and there’s the $20 credit to offset against that) before discontinuing Fi.
But, more likely, you’ll switch to Fi, and enjoy better service and lower monthly bills than ever before. And then you too can start referring it to your friends, and also get $20 credits for each referral.