I’ve cancelled my Project Fi account. Which makes me sad. I have a lot of faith in the concept of Project Fi and in Google in executing it (at least in the states). I still love my Nexus 5X and will most definitely be signing back up when I return home. For extended international travel, however, data access was too inconsistent to be worth continuing to pay for it.
Throughout our travel, Project Fi has provided solid, seamless access to text and voice. We used it for restaurant reservations in Lima and birthday texts with family back home. It was really nice to still have an American number and to be able to call and text whenever we needed to. It was useful for the 2 step verification that’s part of daily life when you are logging into bank accounts and credit cards from foreign countries.
Where Project Fi has not been able to deliver and what eventually made keeping it a waste of money is data coverage.
Project Fi suggests that data will be covered as seamlessly as voice and text. They stated that speeds would never be guaranteed to be faster than 3G but that was fine for us to get email and use maps.
The problem we found was not data speed but consistent coverage. For a while it seemed as if reliable data coverage was limited to cities in more developed countries.
We had coverage in Medellin, Colombia, in Lima, Peru and Cape Town, South Africa, but the longer I used it the more a troubling pattern emerged. It eventually became clear that data access wasn’t unreliable geographically but just unreliable generally.
Waking up any given day there was no way to tell if the data access I had enjoyed the previous day would continue. It for sure wasn’t going to work on the Wild Coast in South Africa but even coverage I had in Cape Town or Johannesberg that was present one hour might be gone the next.
This inconsistency – which was never explained in any satisfactory way by customer service – also made trouble shooting difficult. I would lose connection for a few days and contact Google, just to watch connection suddenly renew right before they got back to me.
I also think the saccharine, overbright positivity of startup culture customer service contributed to the length of time I spent trying to troubleshoot the problem instead of seeing what was really happening.
This is a particular complaint that points to the dark side of the way startup culture has improved customer service. The level of positivity and cool-can-do attitude that oozes out of email and chat service centers for new tech companies is demonstrating the same problem as the old model: it’s script prevents actual listening and admitting when things are wrong.
Over close to a dozen tickets opened with Project Fi, literally no one ever admitted or explained that they didn’t know why data coverage was so inconsistent. When I finally got more demanding and aggressive about someone being honest with me about whether this was a common problem or if it was worth continuing to try to fix, they simply stopped responding. Customer service that was focused on being incredibly fun and enthusiastic was – in the end – not able to do much more than that.
Based on the repeated solutions proposed by Project Fi customer service and some reading I’ve done about how virtual mobile companies and international roaming actually work led me to the conclusion that the tech people couldn’t troubleshoot anything but the settings on my phone because they literally don’t know nothing about the networks I was trying to connect with internationally.
The equivalent of the drunk looking for his keys under the streetlight cause it’s the only place he can see in the dark, Project Fi sent me back to my phone’s settings and hardware over and over because that’s all they know how to do.
It’s most likely that Project Fi’s roaming is actually run two steps removed by the same companies they contract with for data roaming in the US: T-Mobile and Sprint. Project Fi had no advice on connecting to the roaming networks because they truly don’t know anything about how that works. The contracts and relationships that characterize my ability to data roam internationally through Project Fi are organized, run and privileged to people outside their organization.
Google is inspiring to me because they come at a lot of problems from a the point of view of: “How should this work?” not “What can we reasonably expect to make work?”
Cell phones should be easy. You should be able to make all the calls and texts you want. You should only pay for data you use. Billing and starting and stopping service should all be easy to manage. And your phone should work anywhere.
Project Fi come through on a number of these ideas, but their international coverage is still an overreach.
Do they have contracts of some kind for data roaming in 160 countries around the world? Apparently they do. Every country we entered (even the ones where I never got any data at all like Bolivia) had a fun little entry message: “Welcome to XXX! Project Fi has got you covered here.” They have ‘coverage.’ But does the coverage actually work? No, not really.
Which makes sense: from an institutional standpoint there’s no real incentive to spend a lot of money or time to fix this problem.
Like all the people who buy 4X4s because they aspire to need that extra functionality, most Project Fi users probably are attracted to the idea of international coverage without ever actually using it.
And based on the contract language I explored with their customer service a few months ago that gives them the right to terminate service if you overuse international data, I’m guessing they also lose a lot of money when they only charge me $10 for gigabyte of data in South Africa. They need an escape clause in that contract because it does cost them money when customers roam internationally. Again, they are trying to run a mobile company the way it should be, but that doesn’t mean these international partners have to play nice with roaming prices.
To sum it up, they don’t know what’s wrong, don’t have many people like me demanding them to figure it out nor do they have much incentive to do so since it’s likely a loss leader.
In the end, when we finally reached Western Europe and data coverage was still just as buggy and inconsistent as it was in South America and Africa, I realized that admirable and cool as Project Fi is, it’s international coverage isn’t ready for prime time.
I still recommend my Nexus 5X and I look forward to using Project Fi with it when I return home, but for the extended international traveler, consider other options.