In a video explaining the ideology behind its new wireless cellular service, Google describes Project Fi as an innovation in connectivity and communication. It’s an interesting experiment to be sure, but just how big of an impact can we expect Project Fi to have on telecommunications?
Google made headlines in the spring when it announced it was dipping its toes into the wireless waters with Project Fi, which will rely primarily on free Wi-Fi hotspots nationwide, supported by the Sprint and T-Mobile 4G cellular networks, to establish a continuous network. Project Fi is now back in the news due to reports of high initial demand. Google wrote in an email to hopeful subscribers that it will take until mid-summer for all of those who requested invites to receive full service access, adding that initial feedback has been “very positive.”
The service has earned hype for both its innovative use of technology – with Project Fi, your phone will automatically detect and switch to the best quality connection for your location, whether that’s 4G or Wi-Fi – as well its disruptive service terms. Project Fi is available without a contract, offers unlimited text and talk for $20 per month, plus $10 per GB of data, and includes a credit function that refunds subscribers the cost of any unused data at the end of the month. It’s interesting to note that much of the excitement of this announcement is around data and not voice services, which may underscore the idea that we’ve moved well past voice being the leading draw of cellular services.
There are a few reasons consumers are hopeful that Project Fi will turn the wireless industry on its head – the biggest one, of course, being Google’s reputation as an influential digital disruptor. Additionally, the announcement could not have been better timed, as many consumers are frustrated with the restrictive service offerings they receive from their current wireless operators and are eager for a more flexible and affordable alternative to knock the big players from their pedestals.
At the same time, evidence suggests that Google isn’t interested in a market takeover. The tech giant is known to experiment in the field of connectivity – see its Project Loon initiative and Titan acquisition, which rely on high-altitude balloons and lightweight solar-powered drones, respectfully, to expand LTE availability worldwide.
Additionally, in comments at this year’s Mobile World Congress, product head Sundar Pichai clarified that Google intends to help carriers push the boundaries of wireless, but not necessarily stand alone as a competitive operator at scale.
“Our goal is to drive a set of innovations we think should arrive, but do it a smaller scale, like Nexus devices, so people will see what we’re doing,” Pichai said.
So what can we realistically expect from Project Fi? The initiative represents a starting point in Google’s wireless experimentation. It would seem that the primary goal is to experiment with Wi-Fi-first networks. Could we soon see enough dispersion of Wi-Fi hotspots to make it possible for Google to run an entirely Wi-Fi powered phone service, free from reliance on cell network support and entirely independent to traditional mobile operators? The U.S. is certainly a great testing ground in that respect, as many other countries lack the Wi-Fi density needed to support Google’s experimentation.
Is it possible, too, that Project Fi might help Google prepare for the coming 5G revolution. Many in telecommunications believe that, in order to deliver dramatically more speed and capacity, 5G must be heterogeneous wireless networks built on unlicensed spectrums. Could Project Fi be Google’s attempt to learn what such a network might look like?
Though not completely unique – other operators offer Wi-Fi-first service supported by cellular networks – Google’s signal switching technology and data refunds differentiate the service enough to stand out. At the same time, the project’s early limitations – it’s exclusivity to the Nexus phone and the U.S. – suggests it won’t fully disrupt the mobile industry quite yet.
Instead, Project Fi offers a small platform for Google to experiment, adapt and learn from the technology and consumer behaviours. From there, the company will be able to evaluate whether early results are positive enough to proceed with some sort of larger-scale offering, or if it should leave mobile service to the mobile operators. Either way, Google’s innovative spirit and out-of-the-box approach offers a model for digital and communications services providers to adopt, and the initial excitement around Project Fi underscores Generation Cloud’s hunger for a real mobile revolution.
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