Google Fi: From disruptive to meh

Google Project Fi

This week's unveiling of Google's Project Fi, the search-messaging-phone-collaboration-broadband company's effort to shake up the wireless market in order to encourage people to use more of its services, has generated widespread reaction even though relatively few people will be eligible to use the service out of the gate.

The general consensus seems to be that Google's latest experiment isn't revolutionary (for example, "Meh: Google launches disappointing Project Fi MVNO"). No, it isn't the first mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) to let you pay only for the data you use or bop between WiFi and cellular.  But it still has the potential to mess with the biggest wireless service providers' status quo.

MORE: Here's what reply to Google Fi invite request looks like

Google formally introduced Project Fi in a purposely lo-fi manner via a blog post by VP of Communications Projects Nick Fox titled "Say hi to fi: A new way to say hello." His post points the masses to a Google Project Fi landing page, which includes a decent FAQ and instructions for how to sign up for a possible invitation to the service, as long as you have a gmail address and either own or are willing to buy a Nexus 6 Android phablet for $650 or more. Google hasn't said much beyond that, but others have.

Ulterior motive

There's more to Project Fi than relatively cheap wireless service, according to Wired.

Though Google doesn’t say this outright, the company is clearly aiming to change the way we pay for wireless service. Traditionally, carriers have not provided such credits for unused data, and they often charge exorbitant fees when you travel abroad. Companies such a T-Mobile have worked to change things as well. But Google, with its control over so many popular Internet applications and so many of the world’s Android phones, has the muscle to make an even bigger impact. It wouldn’t be the first time.

Data and disruption

IDC analysts Brian Haven and Carrie MacGillivray wrote in a research note that Project Fi is another way for Google to grab your data, but also a method for disrupting the wireless market:

Project Fi could be concerning for all mobile operators – in particular AT&T and Verizon. Google represents the 3rd Platform in its truest sense and is infringing on the mobile operators' turf by riding on borrowed (read: wholesaled) access. With this offering, Google is essentially relegating the cellular network to a pipeline for which to deliver its product, similar to what OTT providers like Netflix and HBO Go have done to traditional broadband providers.  If Google can achieve some meaningful scale, it could significantly disrupt the market and this business model could emerge as an alternative to the way that consumers traditionally subscribe to wireless service.  The question is whether or not Google will try to achieve this scale – as scale is limited by the one device offered, Google Nexus 6.

We don't want to be no stinkin' wireless carrier

Google watcher Gene Munster, a financial analyst with Piper Jaffray, echoes that, as described by Yahoo Finance.

Munster... believes  Google’s Project Fi is an effort for the internet giant to "motivate other wireless providers to provide cheap wireless service that will basically make it easier for us to consume more data."

Google is attempting to disrupt the telecom industry even further by launching its new wireless service. But "at the end of the day, Google does not want to be a wireless carrier," said Munster. 

Comcast checkmate

Comcast (which is said to be ditching its Time Warner merger plan) has been making moves ahead of Google Fi's WiFi-happy service that could make things a little tougher on Google, according to Seeking Alpha's Dana Blankenhorn.

Comcast has been rolling out new routers to its customers with its own service, XFINITY WiFi, on them. I know this because I was "given" such a new router, as a standard, free upgrade, over a year ago. Thus my router is secured and side-band service is offered exclusively through Comcast. This prevents those frequencies, where Comcast dominates, from being accessible to Google Fi customers. It effectively locks Google Fi out of Comcast service territories.

About those WiFi hotspots

Mashable's Lance Ulanoff would like Google to share a bit more about exactly where all these WiFi hotspots are coming from...

Google's Project Fi touts a million free, open Wi-Fi hotspots, but doesn't say whose they are. Is Google paying, say, Cablevision for access to Optimum Online hotspots? Google's Project Fi FAQ states, "We use a network quality database to help determine which networks are high quality and reliable." It's just not clear where that database is coming from or which hotspot providers it's including. Perhaps they're talking about McDonald's and Starbucks hotspots, both of which are free. On the bright side, Google is promising Wi-Fi security via automatic Virtual Private Network (VPN) connections.

Magic SIM card

Everyone seems pretty curious about this magical SIM card the will enable Google Fi users to bounce between Sprint, T-Mobile and WiFi networks, latching onto whichever has the strongest signal. But Google is pretty coy about it so far. From its FAQ: 

  • What is different about the Project Fi SIM card?

    The SIM card in your smartphone contains the information needed for your device to connect to cellular networks. We collaborated with our partners to develop a SIM card that supports access to multiple networks.

Google is stacked

Jan Dawson at Techpinions starts off citing the limited hardware option, in Nexus 6, but goes on to point out Google's unique play up and down the wireless stack.

As you can see, Google is the only company here that’s working all the way up and down this stack in various ways. In the case of Project Fi, it controls the hardware, the software (stock Android), apps and services which are unique to Android and to Project Fi, and now the wireless connectivity around it. This is, for better or worse, an all-Google experience out of the box, for the first time. And Google, of course, also controls the retail channel for all this. The big question for Google – as it was for Amazon with the Fire Phone – is to what extent people want such an experience, and whether they want it badly enough to justify putting up with the current limitations of the service. It’s an interesting experiment in the short term, but I’m just not convinced at this point it can achieve any sort of mass appeal or adoption unless some things change pretty dramatically.

Deja vu

Some, like BostInno, wrote that Project Fi sounds awfully familiar.

Arguably one of the most alluring features of Google's service is that customers will only pay for the data they use, whereas most traditional plans require subscribers to pay for a certain amount of data, much of which may be wasted when it expires at the end of the month. But Google isn’t the first company to capitalize on this sort of approach: Cambridge-based Scratch Wireless has offered this type of wireless service for years.

Pricing blahs

While Google has received a lot of attention for its pricing, $20 a month for unlimited talk/text and $10 per 1GB of data, not everyone is blown away. Among those, Dean Bubley of Disruptive Analysis.

The main thing that strikes me is that it's not especially cheap. Yes, $20/month is a good headline price for US consumers who have a major-operator plan today, but $10/GB isn't really that good a deal, unless you're a mostly-WiFi user who just needs a bit of cellular data for maps and emails when you're out and about. If you're using 5GB, 10GB or more per month (as you might expect from a Nexus owner), it starts to look a bit pricey, especially compared to T-Mo US or a number of international peers. There's a good comparison with other US plans here.

Don't overlook tethering

As Tom's Hardware points out, Google Fi won't charge you for tethering, as other carriers do.

Another feature that Google offers with Project Fi, and should be offered by all carriers (but isn't), is free tethering from your device. You can use your smartphone as a Wi-Fi hotspot for other devices, such as your laptop. Google will still charge for all consumed data, but it won't charge extra just for the privilege of using the phone's Wi-Fi hotspot feature.

What about my iPhone?

While Android bloggers were quick to embrace Project Fi, Apple bloggers were intrigued but are obviously in a pretty big holding pattern in terms of ever seeing Fi come to them. MacRumors notes that Apple was once rumored to be getting into the wireless services game.

Google is the first major technology company to introduce its own wireless service, and it's possible that other companies could follow in its footsteps. In the past, there were rumors suggesting Apple would take on the role of a mobile carrier, selling service directly to consumers, but in 2012, Apple CEO Tim Cook said that Apple did not need to be a carrier and would be better off focusing its efforts on making great devices.

International perspective

Mobile Ecosystem's Mark Lowenstein ended March with a column on FierceWireless in which he lays out 7 things Google could do make its wireless offer interesting, and Google largely delivered. For example, it will offer wireless roaming in 120+ countries without obnoxious roaming fees.

Fix International. If this is going to be a unique software/hardware oriented experience, Google could take a stab at improving the experience for users when calling internationally or when traveling. There has been some headway by operators, but the whole international ball 'o wax can still be confusing and expensive. Plus it's still not easy for the occasional traveler to buy a temporary plan on an as-needed basis.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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