Lost in the alphabet soup that is Google’s new holding company is one of its many experiments in changing the business rules for network services while nudging the technology in a direction that ultimately benefits consumers. No, not Fiber, although it’s a fantastic broadband disruptor for those that can get it, but Project Fi, Google’s mobile service. After arriving with great fanfare this spring, Fi has slipped under the radar because of Google’s slow, by-invitation rollout, its very limited phone support (one!) and the fact Google hasn’t publicized the service like its more sexy Project X experiments like Glass, Loon and Self-Driving Cars. Indeed, the individual pieces that make Fi appealing aren’t unique, but collectively they are trendsetting and could herald welcome changes in how we all use and pay for phones and wireless service.
In this column, I explain the technical side of Fi, as an MVNO, VoWiFi service, but also how it changes the billing and pricing model in ways that provide consumers with much more flexibility and transparency. The Fi meta-network is a great idea and well implemented, but not without limitations, which I detail. Fi also only supports a single device, the Nexus 6: a great phone, but not for everyone. Although its technical features are commendable, far more important is what Fi does to the mobile business model. By decoupling the user from a particular carrier, eliminating contract lock-ins and associated phone subsidies and adopting a form of usage-based pricing, Fi turns the smartphone into just another a consumer appliance: more like a PC than a condo.
Collectively these changes don’t necessarily mean lower bills, but they do provide much greater transparency regarding one’s overall mobile costs and usage that Econ 101 says should drive more rational purchase decisions. By providing a model of usage flexibility, for both the network and data plan, billing clarity and service freedom, Fi is a success regardless of Google’s future plans. Although there’s always a risk with using any Google experiment, I couldn’t be happier with Fi and strongly hope it grows the service with new devices, including iPhones, and more trusted WiFi locations.