I glimpsed the future before it collapsed into bullshit.
I wanted Project Fi, Google’s new and experimental cellular phone service, to be amazing. The idea sounded so superior to the status quo that it just had to be destined for greatness. But like the Star Wars prequels and most food with black olives, it let me down.
A brief refresher: Project Fi is Google’s attempt to provide the be-all-end-all for your smartphone needs. It’s a mobile virtual network operator, or MVNO, that switches between T-Mobile, Sprint, and Wi-Fi intelligently so that you have the best service between the three. You pay 20 bucks for talk and text and an additional $10 per gigabyte of data, and it’s all prepaid.
Don’t use all your gigs in one month? Get a refund! Go over? Pay extra on your next bill! But it’s always just $10 for 1GB... that’s it, and the simplicity is beautiful. The only catch is you have to use the hand-exhausting Nexus 6 smartphone to participate, but it makes sense: this is a pure Google experience, from hardware to software to carrier.
A pure Google experience that started out wonderfully, and quickly became a nightmare.
The Honeymoon Phase
When you sign up for Project Fi, Google sends along a little care package—a Nexus 6 case, an external battery, and a headphone splitter—along with your Project Fi nano-SIM. Pop in the SIM, press a few buttons in the Google Fi app, and you’re ready to go. Seriously, that’s it. I just signed up for a phone service in 5 minutes using an app. This is the future. Yes, yes, yes.
The care package.
I started with Project Fi on a Friday, and things were going smoothly. I did notice that when I was tied up with T-Mobile, things were occasionally a little slow. Service fluttered between HSPA+ and LTE, but generally I didn’t notice a problem. During the honeymoon phase, I even called our reviews editor Sean Hollister with a progress report of sorts. “It’s great.” I recall saying. “This is the way cell service should be.”
Three weeks later I was speaking about Project Fi with another Gizmodean outside our New York city office. “It’s terrible.” I said. “I’m so happy to be done with it.”
Here’s what happened.
The Horror Sets In
Almost as soon as I got off that cheery convo with Sean, I stared down at my phone—no service. “Wait, what?” At the time, I happened to be sitting on the roof of my friend’s apartment in Brooklyn playing Magic: The Gathering and drinking Corona. I hadn’t moved more than a few feet during the entire conversation, so what the heck could have happened?
Particularly when the whole appeal of Project Fi is that the service is supposed to switch when it encounters a problem on one network, or when it sees you’re getting poor service. I had major doubts that both T-Mobile and Sprint were having major outages at the same time. I reset my phone, and got this message—a message I would become oh-so-very familiar with:
Temporarily unavailable = never available ever
Nothing worked until I actually physically ejected and re-inserted my SIM card, and even when it did finally pop back onto the network, it was at sub-LTE speeds. Over the next few days, I was able to eke by a piss poor cellular lifestyle with the same song and dance. Lose network. Eject SIM. Insert SIM. Power cycle phone. Have service for a few hours. Repeat.
And remember, all this from a service where Google controls everything: the phone, the app, the network, and even the SIM.
Then, things went from bad to worse. By the fourth day, my usual tricks weren’t getting the job done. I started get weird, cryptic SIM card error messages like so:
I was perpetually tied to wifi with none of the service I was paying $70 a month for. I couldn’t take it. Something had to be done.
So I called support.
The Long, Long, Way Too Long Goodbye
The truly torturous thing about my Project Fi experience wasn’t the fact that I had no data, phone, or text—though that definitely wasn’t fun. It was that the whole thing felt like a glimmer of greatness tarnished by a service that just sucks.
The fact is, Project Fi has some of the best customer service I’ve ever dealt with just by virtue of how easy they are to reach. Inside the Fi app, you can select what method you wish to be contacted by—phone, text, or email—and if you choose phone, real flesh-and-blood humans will call you back. No automated chat programs, “dial one for” whatever, or the always uncanny “Sorry, I didn’t hear that” computer-generated response. The app will even display how long it’ll take for them to get back to you.
The wait times were usually 1 minute for phone or text and 1 hour for email, so I went the phone route. The first rep walked me through the prerequisite troubleshooting tips (the stuff I’d been doing for the past few days) and then told me that Sprint service was down in NYC and that I simply needed to stay on wifi until it could get fixed. “Ok,” I grumbled in response. Are you kidding me?
The next day, things were still terrible, so I called again (over wifi). This customer rep was much better, offering credit for my trouble and escalating my problem to technicians. Unfortunately, my wifi fluttered, and the call dropped dead. The representative couldn’t return my call because, well, I didn’t have a working phone. This crippled game of back-and-forth phone tag went on for a couple days until I resorted to email.
From there spawned a 21-response long email chain, lasting 15 days, that solved nothing and when summarized, went like this:
Me: So...my phone still doesn’t work. Can you fix it?
Rep: We have identified the problem and there is a fix in progress.
Me: (two days later): So...yeah. Still doesn’t work.
Rep: We have identified the problem and there is a fix in progress.
Me: Like when?
Rep: We know this is frustrating and there is a fix in progress.
And on and on and on.
Step 1: Kill with kindness
During this whole conversation, I never once let on that I was a tech journalist or that I was writing a review. I didn’t want to be flagged for special treatment. I was a paying customer (Google did not provide access for this review) and I just wanted Project Fi to run its course. The half-reason I was continually given was that I was improperly on the network and unable to access Project Fi. At first, Google blamed my Google phone. Then it blamed the system itself. Every email ended with the familiar response that a fix was coming shortly.
This whole period last almost two weeks. In that time, I’d received an important text from a friend visiting from Denver...7 hours late. I had Slack messages from work, yelling for my thoughts on a breaking piece of news that I was oblivious to because I didn’t have a working handset. Whenever I went out with friends, I was a child on an overprotective parent leash—if we became separated, I was doomed.
After nearly 3 weeks, I couldn’t take it anymore. I marched down to a T-Mobile store a block away. It felt like I’d come crawling back to my old carrier. Even in our goodbye, Project Fi showed that it was better in some ways than your average cellular service. I was able to hop into the app, tell Google I was leaving, and that was pretty much it. It even gave me a code to share with T-Mobile to resume my old plan. Since it was all prepaid, there was no contract to break and no early termination fees. I was just gone.
And that’s what’s still so compelling about Project Fi. The idea that owning a phone could be way less of a hassle. A service that cuts out the middleman. A service that (theoretically) has the combined coverage map of two of the US’ largest carriers. I hope they fix it. Or that I’m an outlier, one of 1,000 or 10,000 for whom the service didn’t work. Maybe you’re enjoying Project Fi right now without a care in the world. Lucky you, I’m jealous.
But this was my experience, and it just didn’t work. I paid real money for Project Fi. I gave it a go, and it was unreliable as hell. And when I switched back to T-Mobile, everything went smoothly from the moment I popped that T-Mobile SIM back into my Nexus 6.
Oh, and after I finally had a working phone again, I found one more email from Project Fi waiting for me. They wanted to let me know a fix was in progress.
Contact the author at email@example.com.
Editor’s Note: Darren might be done with Project Fi, but this won’t be our last test. How well does Project Fi work when, you know, it’s actually working? Stay tuned.