Google Project Fi: A Good Cell Phone Service for Cruisers?

In my past life I worked for a major cell phone provider in Canada and I am acutely aware of the high costs of cell service in Canada and the vast expense of having a Canadian phone whilst traveling. Thankfully Google have been playing in the cell phone provider business for a couple of years with Project Fi.  I think the goal of the project is to test various carrier features in a controlled environment.

What is Project Fi?

Fi is Google’s virtual cell phone company (MVNO). Google uses T-Mobile, US Cellular and Sprint to provide coverage in the US and mostly T-Mobile’s roaming partners when roaming abroad.
Fi offers very simple pricing – $20 per month for the first phone, $15 for up to 5 more phones, $10 per GB for data anywhere in the world. In the US, calls to the US and Canada are free, when roaming they are 20 cents per minute over the cell network. Calls over Wi-Fi are treated as if they are originating in the US. International rates are very reasonable – 1 cent to the UK, 23 cents for the Caribbean. SMS is always free. You prepay for a set amount of data, in our case 4 GB, but if you don’t use the set amount they refund the difference at the end of the month so you only pay for what you use.

There is a required Fi app that supports account management, troubleshooting and support.

Devices

Fi uses only Google Nexus 5X, and 6P and the Pixel and Pixel XL phones. (Reviews linked in the names.) For me, this is no issue as I like vanilla Android and I have had a number of Nexus phones in the past. We have 2 Nexus 5X’s and we are very happy with them, especially the camera. We bought one of our phones through Fi at a discount.  If you are a dyed in the wool Apple fan this is not for you, at least for the time being.

Wi-Fi

Fi makes great use of Wi-Fi, calls can be made and received over Wi-Fi. This is useful as it provides coverage where the cell network might be weak. Wi-Fi calling also reduces costs as US and Canadian calls are free no matter what.

Event with no Wi-Fi, if you use the Hangouts Dialer, you can force a voice call over data when you are roaming, this gets you back to free calls in the US and Canada, but you are paying for the data. It works out a lot cheaper than 20 cents a minute at less than 1 cent per minute in extra data charges.

 

Coverage and Performance

(Updated May 2017)
USA – we had good coverage throughout our trip in the US, mostly 3G/HSPA or HSPA+ in rural areas with LTE in major cities.
Canada – We used the phone in Kingston and had great results with LTE just about everywhere. Sadly there was a bit of a coverage hole right at our dock, but otherwise no issues.
British Virgin Islands – We initially had only 2G (EDGE) coverage in the BVIs, I asked Fi support about this and they said they were in the process of enabling 3G HSPA. The last few days we started to get consistent 3G connections. When they enabled 3G it seemed to cause some issues, but things improved. I assume they had some teething issues.
St Martin/Sint Maarten – The island of St Martin is a cellular disaster area. Two countries and many cell providers crammed onto a small island. Local SIMs are a mess and we had more than our fair share of issues.
The French side was well covered by Orange with coverage coming from 2 other networks, both Digicell. Locking the phone to Orange worked well, the Digicell networks were hopeless and for some reason Fi prefers them over Orange which, unlike the Digicell networks provided good service.
The Dutch side was a total fail, we could sometimes pickup Orange from the French side but generally we had no service save for Wi-Fi conveniently provided by just about every bar and restaurant. Sint Maarten is listed as covered.

UPDATE:  In April and May 2017 we had much better coverage and performance in St Martin.  The Dutch side works quite well, as Orange coverage seems to work far better than earlier in the season.

Saba – No coverage – Google claims there should be coverage in the Dutch Caribbean. There was Wi-Fi in just about every place we visited so we had some access to make calls and text.
St Barts (Saint Barthélemy) – Great coverage on HSPA except in the anchorage at Anse a Colombier.

St Kitts and Nevis – Continuous coverage from Gustavia in St Barts into St Kitts, 3G everywhere we went.

Guadeloupe:  Coverage in Guadeloupe was very good.  LTE in Pointe a Pitre, HSPA in the rest of the Island including the saints.  We did have a connection issue, but this was resolved with help from Fi Support.

Antigua: Great coverage no issues.  HSPA throughout.

Barbuda: Good coverage on HSPA

Dominica:  Good coverage.  The boiling lake hike is not well covered, but I did have coverage on some of the ridges.  HSPA with some EDGE in places.

Our Costs

Starting with one phone, we used the service for a couple of months in the US as we came south. We added a second line before we left the US as we found sharing a phone works well if we are both at the boat, less well when someone has to fly home.

Our bills have varied from $11 to $126 for 2 phones and usage. The $11 bill had 2 credits for poor service in the BVIs and we did not use all the data we paid for so we got an automatic credit too. The $126 bill was for the period we were in St Martin with no access to Wi-Fi on the boat so we used a lot of data. Google sent reminders and there was no bill shock, we were aware that we were running over our planned 4 GB per month. We used an extra 2.9 GB and we had $12 of long distance and 20 cents per minute calls. This was over Christmas with all the family calls we needed to make.  

I think we spend less than some of our friends do when they are using local SIMs and way less than if we had a Canadian plan.

How does Project Fi work with our cruising life?

In short, really really well. We have the same phone numbers where ever we are. We don’t have to run around looking for a local SIM or worry about running out of credit. Google has tried to be helpful with all our support questions, which are generally to do with coverage.

Currently we are happy to recommend Fi, that might change as we visit more islands, but so far we are happy.

If you like the idea of Fi and want to sign up, ask a friend who is already on Fi for a referral link, ours is here, you will save $20 and your friend will get $20 off their bill as well.  You will need a US Google account follow the process below if you don’t have one.

Getting Fi if you are Canadian:
Fi is only available in the US, but it is possible to get it as a Canadian.
Firstly you need a US address that is the billing address for a US credit card, RBC can help with this. We used the UPS store in Ogdensburg.
Secondly you need a US Google account. This one is fairly easy, either create an account while you are in the US or connect to a US VPN and then create the account.
Lastly you need a service address in the US for 911 fall back and to determine the area code you will be given, we used the address of a yacht club in the US that we visit on occasion.

 

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