With the release of the Pixel and Pixel XL, Google is officially a smartphone manufacturer. But their mobile endeavors aren't just limited to software and hardware, as Project Fi has already made them into a legitimate cell service provider.
Project Fi piggybacks off existing T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular, and Sprint cell towers, so in a way, it's like three carrier networks combined into one. To make the coverage even better, all Google Fi phones get automatic access to a nationwide network of secure Wi-Fi hotspots (hence, the "Fi" in their name).
But with so many different connections in play here, Project Fi won't work with just any smartphone—it needs a versatile device capable of operating on many frequencies to give you the full experience. This is why Project Fi's hardware offerings have thus far been limited to the Nexus lineup, but with the Pixel's launch, the carrier now has a premium handset in the fold.
But on the flip side of that, buying a Pixel phone means you have the option of switching to Project Fi. Google's new flagships are getting praise for their hardware and software integration, but imagine how seamless your experience would be if your phone, operating system, and carrier were all built with each other in mind. To put it simply, Pixel and Project Fi look like a perfect pairing, and their plans could save you a ton of cash.
Project Fi combines the networks of T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular, and Sprint to offer rock-solid coverage that should theoretically cover more area than any of those individual networks. However, Google's carrier service is still too new to have been thoroughly reviewed by independent testers like RootMetrics, so you should make sure to check your zip code in the Project Fi coverage map before you consider a switch.
But coverage isn't the biggest selling point for Project Fi, as data plans start at an amazingly cheap $30/month. In fact, Project Fi's pricing is about as straightforward as it gets: Pay $20/month for a line and get unlimited calls and texts, then add $10/month for each gigabyte of data used. If you use more data than you earmarked, you'll be billed at the same $10/gigabyte rate, down to the penny. If you use less, your account will be credited at the same rate.
Google recently added a new money-saving wrinkle to this with their Project Fi group plans, but pricing here is just as straightforward. The first line still costs $20/month, but all lines after that (up to five) will only cost $15/month. Beyond that, the same $10/gigabyte pricing applies to data usage on each individual line.
Project Fi's rate schedule means that it's extremely cost effective if you don't use a ton of mobile data, but heavy users can get priced out rather quickly. $50/month for unlimited talk, text, and three gigs of data is great—but if you up the data usage to eight gigabytes per month, you're suddenly looking at a three-digit phone bill.
At what point does Project Fi become the more cost-effective option, and how much data can you use?
According to research firm Cowen and Company, 4G LTE service plans like Project Fi's cost $103/month on average for a single user. For the sake of simplicity, let's (generously) assume $13 of that is going towards taxes and fees, which brings us to a $90/month pre-tax average.
At that rate, you could switch to Project Fi and save money if you used anything less than 7 gigabytes of data per month on average. However, if you normally average more than 7 gigabytes a month, a traditional service plan would probably be a better fit.
Another important case in which these plans will save you money: International travel. Project Fi offers data coverage in over 135 countries at no extra charge, meaning you'll still get that same $10/gigabyte pricing overseas while accessing the fastest available data networks in that area. A few other carriers offer similar deals, but these roaming plans generally throttle your data down to 3G speeds.
If you're currently locked into a 2-year cell service plan, most carriers would require a $200 Early Termination Fee (ETF) if you decided to switch to Project Fi. But even then, you could use up to 6 GB of data every month on Project Fi, eat the $200 ETF, and still come out ahead over a 2-year period (and that's not including data overage and other fees).
Bottom line, Project Fi is more cost-effective than the average cell phone plan if you use an average of seven gigabytes of data or fewer each month. And even if you're currently locked into a cell service plan, you could easily sever ties, take your new Pixel phone to Project Fi, and still save money—all while getting access to the network your phone was made for.