On Wednesday, Google unveiled its long-awaited phone service, called Project Fi, putting the search giant in competition with Verizon, AT&T and other wireless service providers. In addition to new turf, the service is an attempt to blend several communication tools and the multiplying ways of calling people – cellular calls, online calls like those offered by Skype – into a single phone number and service.
For now, Project Fi could be considered an experiment. It will be available only to people using Google’s Nexus 6 phone, limiting its reach.
Analysts see the new service as a bid to reimagine phone calls so that they have greater overlap with Google’s expanding world of devices and services.
Unlike your typical cell service, Project Fi will mix traditional wireless technology, where calls are routed through cellular towers, with the wireless Internet service found in Starbucks, airports and elsewhere. Google has teamed with Sprint and T-Mobile to provide the traditional wireless service and said it had about 1 million wireless hotspots for the rest.
“Wherever you’re connected to Wi-Fi – whether that’s at home, your favorite coffee shop or your Batcave – you can talk and text like you normally do,” Nick Fox, Google’s vice president of communications products, wrote in a blog post. “If you leave an area of Wi-Fi coverage, your call will seamlessly transition from Wi-Fi to cell networks so your conversation doesn’t skip a beat.”
In addition to changing networks, the service will move users’ phone numbers between screens, so they can talk and text on phones, tablets or laptops. And as with most things Google does, the service is meant to be cheap.
Traditional cellphone carriers like AT&T and Verizon charge customers upward of $100 a month for their services, including phone calls and mobile data. Google’s service will be $20 a month for basic voice and text service, along with a flat $10 per gigabit of cellular data.
“Since it’s hard to predict your data usage, you'll get credit for the full value of your unused data,” according to the blog post. “Let’s say you go with 3GB for $30 and only use 1.4GB one month. You'll get $16 back, so you only pay for what you use.”
In many ways, the wireless service is similar to the Google Fiber Internet service that has been introduced in a handful of U.S. cities, including the Kansas City area and Austin, Texas.
Google is piggybacking on giant physical networks that are owned by other companies, creating a barrier that, for now at least, limits Google’s competitive threat to traditional carriers. But Google has a long history of trying to cut out middlemen – including Internet service providers, online stores and delivery businesses – that stand between the company and users.
With the wireless service, Google will be operating as what is called a mobile virtual network operator, or MVNO, which provides a service on other mobile carriers’ networks.
“It’s always an interesting business because you are dependent on the companies who you are trying to compete with,” said Jan Dawson, chief analyst at Jackdaw Research. “And they will only support you if they think you’re targeting a niche they can’t target themselves.”