Why Google Fi? Because it's fast, cheap and easy

The best mobile service just got way, way better. Google's poorly understood Fi is just too good to pass up (especially for nomads).

I'm a digital nomad.

In fact, I've been living (and loving) the digital nomad lifestyle on and off for 10 years now. Specifically, my wife and I got rid of our house and put all our stuff into storage. Now we choose various places around the world, rent a house or apartment for between one and four months, and live there as "temporary locals." (I maintain a blog about the digital nomad lifestyle called "Becoming Nomad.")

As a writer who typically interviews sources via Skype or email and files his stories via the internet, it doesn't matter where I live as long as I have a good internet connection.

I've lived for months in Kenya, Turkey, Spain, Italy, Cuba, Mexico, Greece, Guatemala, Jordan and elsewhere. Right now, I'm living in Aix-en-Provence, France.

But being a digital nomad doesn't necessarily mean you live abroad, just that you find yourself working in nontraditional work locations, ranging from a coffee shop to your couch at home, for extended periods of time. If you make your living without having to be full time in a particular office location, then you're a digital nomad, too.

When I started, services that catered to digital nomads were practically nonexistent. Over the years, several new categories of apps, internet-based services and other products have emerged to make my life easier.

One of the best of these services is Google's Project Fi, which I consider a must-use service for any digital nomad -- and it just got better. A lot better.

Google last week announced faster international service and 15 new supported countries (Google made a deal with a European carrier called Three, which brings the total number of countries where Fi works to 135).

Google Fi is what they call in the industry a mobile virtual network operator, or MVNO. That means Google itself does not provide the wireless phone and data services, but uses existing services.

There are lots of MVNOs. But Google's is vastly superior thanks to technology and pricing. Let's first talk about the tech.

The technology that makes Google Fi great

Most MVNOs are built on the infrastructure of a single mobile carrier. Google Fi is built on three U.S. carriers. Fi connects you to the mobile phone services of Sprint, T-Mobile and US Cellular.

That's where the technology part comes in: Fi will pick which carrier on the fly based on which has the strongest coverage in your location.

However, Google Fi is only available on the Nexus 6P, Nexus 5X and Nexus 6 smartphones. Google says these phones uniquely support the special Project Fi SIM card and have special cellular radios that can work on different network types.

googlefi france Google Fi screen grab

Google Fi's mobile app lets you configure, manage and control Fi and even suspend service with no penalty.

If you're on a call as you move into an area where a different carrier is stronger, you'll be switched automatically. When you're within range of a free, open Wi-Fi network that's faster than the available mobile broadband, Fi will route your call through Wi-Fi.

If you have a Google Voice number, as I do, you can use that number as your main number for the Fi phone.

Fi was great even when Google throttled data connection speeds while abroad to 256Mbps. But that cap has been removed, so now you can get the full speed of the local carrier. This is huge news because it's an unprecedented service.

Google claims that it now is "able to deliver speeds 10-20X faster than before." This is a sudden, unexpected and dizzying upgrade from 2G to LTE, where available -- and all for a simple, low price.

The pricing model that makes Google Fi great

Local wireless data rates vary wildly from country to country. With Fi, you pay the same no matter where you go and no matter how much the local carrier charges local customers. (Sorry, world: Fi is limited to U.S. customers only.)

Fi costs $20 per month for unlimited domestic talk and text as well as unlimited international texts. Data costs $10 per month for each gigabyte you use over mobile wireless (Wi-Fi is free). The Google Fi app and website enable you to formally estimate your future monthly data usage -- something Google calls a "data budget."

Ordinary voice calls made while abroad using a local carrier (while you're not connected to Wi-Fi) cost an amount that varies based on the country. Here in France, it costs 20 cents a minute to make international phone calls over Fi.

And this is the best feature: You can also use your Fi-powered Nexus to create a Wi-Fi hotspot with the phone, so all your devices can connect without additional charge. That means I can connect five or six devices at the same time without paying more (unless I use more data).

Google Fi changed everything for me. I bought a Nexus 5X just to use the phone as a Google Fi Wi-Fi hotspot for my iPhone and MacBook Pro.

I always rent AirBnB accommodations that have Wi-Fi. When I'm at home, Fi routes through the home Wi-Fi network and data is free. When I leave the house, both my wife and I keep our iPhones, iPads and MacBook Pros connected at all times through the Fi hotspot. It's functionally close to life in the U.S., and all without "gotcha" pricing, buying and swapping SIM cards or any of the other hassles that used to attend connectivity abroad.

In addition to offering a clear pricing model, Fi is conspicuously fair as well. If you use less data than your data budget, Google will credit you about a penny per megabyte for whatever you didn't use, which will be applied to the next month's bill. If you're getting close to your budget, Fi alerts you. If you do choose to go over, you'll still be charged $10 per gigabyte -- but the amount you're charged for the overage doesn't go up in $10 increments. If you go over by just part of a gigabyte, then you'll pay only for that part. For example, if you go over by 1.37 megabytes, you'll pay $1.37 more.

Of course, if you're in range of an accessible Wi-Fi hotspot, Fi will automatically switch your phone over to Wi-Fi and you'll pay nothing for calls and data while connected to Wi-Fi.

As an incentive, Google offers a $150 discount on the Nexus 5X if you activate Fi on it within 30 days of shipment (the offer is valid until Aug. 11). Google offers the same discount for a Nexus 6P, but that expires July 19.

You can cancel anytime, and there is no termination fee.

Better still, you can suspend and reactivate your account at any time in seconds via the app or website. I'm grandfathered in on AT&T, so I suspend my AT&T account and activate my Google Fi account when I leave the country. When I'm back in the states, I reactivate AT&T and suspend Google Fi.

In short, Google Fi has become a very compelling service for digital nomads of all kinds and a must-use service for anyone who travels abroad -- even if you're like me and don't want to use one of the Nexus phones as your main phone.

Why Fi? Because it's always been cheap and easy. And now it's fast, too.

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Mike Elgan

Computerworld (US)
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