Thursday, July 02, 2015

Some notes when ordering Google's Project Fi

I just ordered my "Project Fi" phone. You probably should, too. Here are some notes (especially near the bottom on getting a new phone number).

Project Fi is Google's MVNO. An "MVNO" is a virtual mobile phone company -- they don't have any of their own network backbone or cell towers, but just rent them from the real mobile phone companies (like AT&T or T-Mobile). Most mobile phone companies are actually MVNOs, because building a physical network is expensive.

What makes Google's MVNO interesting:
  • Straightforward pricing. It's $20 a month for unlimited calling/texting, plus $10 per gigabyte of data used during the month. It includes tethering.
  • No roaming charges, in 120 countries. I can fly to Japan, Australia, and France, and still use email, Google maps, texting -- for no extra charge.
The pricing is similar to other phone companies, a little less or a little more depending on exactly what you want. For around 3 gigs a month, Project Fi is cheaper than AT&T, but for 30 gigs, it's more expensive.

There are more and more MVNOs providing easy international roaming (like, and your own phone company is increasingly solving the problem. T-Mobile, for example, provides free roaming at 2G speeds, enough to check email and maybe enough to navigate.

In-country phone calls are free, but international phone calls still cost $0.20 a minute -- unless you are on WiFi, in which case it's free. Again, this is a feature provided by other mobile phone companies and MVNOs.

In short, Google is really doing nothing new. They are just providing what you'd expect of a 21st century phone service without all the pricing shenanigans that other companies go through in order to squeeze extra money out of you.

One of the big things is which number you will use. In the United States, you can now take your phone number with you when you switch phone companies. But there are other options. For example, you can get a new phone number with the phone in order to try out the service, then switch numbers later. Or, you can switch your current number to Google Voice, and then simply forward it to the new phone. I'm choosing the third option -- using both phones for a while, and if I decide to keep my new Google phone, switch my old number over using Google Voice.

If you plan on getting a new phone number, there is a trick to it. In most areas, you'll just get a recycled phone number that was previously used by somebody else. You'll spend the next several years getting phone calls for that person. In particular, you'll get phone calls from collection agencies trying to collect money from dead beats that used to have your number. That's because people with credit problems go through a lot of phone numbers, either because they run up phone debt they can't pay, or because they deliberately change phones to avoid creditors. Consequently, on average, any recycled phone number you get will have one time been used by somebody with credit problems. Collection firms will then aggressively go through all the former numbers of a target and call you many times, sometimes in the middle of the night.

The way to fix this is to choose an area code without recycled numbers. In the United States, several new area codes are created every year for areas of the country that are growing, when they exhaust their existing area codes. Since long distance is free in the US, it doesn't really matter which area code you have anymore, so pick one of these new area codes for your number.

The way I did this with Project Fi was to first go to this website that documents new area codes. I then went to Google Voice to create a new number. I had to go about 10 area codes down the list to find one that Google Voice supports. I chose a number in that area, and to be certain, Googled it to make sure nobody had used it before. When I get my new Project Fi phone, the number will transfer over, becoming a real phone number instead of a virtual Google Voice number.

Thus, I get a virgin telephone number, albeit one from another state, rather than a recycled number that has been used by somebody else.

The main reason I'm getting a Project Fi phone is to hack it. The WiFi calling looks interesting, so I want to see how much I can mess with it, such as fuzzing the WiFi stack, or intercepting and decrypting my own communications. I suppose the Nexus 6 is necessary for the WiFi calling feature, but otherwise it should be possible to just stick the SIM in an iPhone. If anybody has any suggestions on what to play with, please tweet me @ErrataRob.

1 comment:

John Thacker said...

"In-country phone calls are free, but international phone calls still cost $0.20 a minute -- unless you are on WiFi, in which case it's free."

I don't think this is quite right, looking at the rate description. International phone calls from the US to another country are *not* free. Whether on WiFi or cellular in the US, they'll route it through their VoIP Hangouts service, which means typically something like 1 cent a minute for landlines, 3 cents for cellular to countries like France and the UK, and 3 cents for landlines, 9 cents for cellular to Japan, etc. That's for POTS terminating calls. Using Hangouts or another non-POTS service (Skype to Skype, whatever) would of course be freeish, but suffer the data charge.

When in a non-US country, in-country phone calls are not free. They are twenty cents per minute over cellular, and the same rate as calling that non-US country from the US over WiFi (since using Google's VoIP service). When outside the US, there's no difference between calling in-country numbers and outside that country numbers.

Calling from outside the US back to the US, however, is free.

Cellular data is the same rate inside or outside the US, in supported countries, though speed limited outside the US.