It’s been four months since I returned my iphone to Sprint and my wife and I switched over to Project Fi, the no-contract cellular service operated by Google. Calls are routed preferentially via wi-fi when available, and on the Sprint or T-mobile networks when you’re away from wi-fi. We put Fi to the test by traveling out of country (Mexico City, then San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico). Our verdict: Victory for the forces of democratic freedom!*
First, let’s run the numbers. For July, August and September 2016, Sprint bills were: $156 each month. By comparison, those same months in 2017 with Project Fi ran us $60, $25.66 and $44.29. To be fair, the August Project Fi bill reflected a $35 credit for adding my wife to our plan the prior month. If we add back the $35 credit, the average monthly total for Project Fi is still ~$54 a month, which reduced our monthly bill by 63%! Since this is a recurring monthly charge, we’ll save $1224 this year.
Phone choice is a major drawback of Project Fi. You won't be able to bring-your-own-phone (sorry Apple junkies, it's incompatible with the iphone) so there will be an outlay up front for a limited selection of high quality options. My wife and I both went for the Nexus 5x, far more frugal than the Pixel (which started at $650 at the time we purchased). Mine cost $270, while my wife’s cost $335 - she watched me from the sidelines, and by the time she was ready to commit a discount offered by google had expired. Subtracting the cost of both phones from our expected annual savings, we still come out ahead by $619 for our first year with Fi. Not bad!
Call quality was no worse than when we were in contract with Sprint (not surprising, since Project Fi uses the Sprint network). There is seamless transition when going from wi-fi to network during the same phone call. Although we have yet to tether our devices to our phones, there is no charge (beyond the data used) to do so.
International calls and data were a dream. You simply walk off the plane and it works. In 135 countries and counting, you can use your phone. No sim card. No needing to know which carriers to connect to. You turn on the international setting, and it just works. For Mexico, where calls had been free with Sprint, we paid $ .20/minute for calls and $10/GB (the identical rate we pay in the U.S.) for data. We used Uber daily in Mexico City, without any problem. International texting is free.
Billing is easy to understand. You pay each bill a month in advance. You are refunded the balance of the data you did not use as a credit in the subsequent month’s plan, so if I use only half of my 1GB data plan, I get $5 credit discounted on the next month’s bill. Adding my wife to my plan was simple, and netted us each an “add-a-member” credit. I can easily view each bill to date on the Project Fi app on my phone, and can break it down by specific costs, data use, and user.
Customer service is an order of magnitude better. Opening the Project Fi app on my Android phone gives me the option of getting a near-immediate call from a customer service rep (usually within a minute), engaging a live chat, or sending an email to be answered within 24 hours. I’ve used the phone call with the rep, and they’ve been both competent to answer your questions and empowered to fix your problems without transferring to another line.
My experience with Sprint, in contrast, was a variant of the Woody Allen line from Annie Hall: “The food is terrible, and such small portions!” Sprint phone reps usually required 10 minutes of wait time to reach, and they seemed to exist in a bureaucracy whose sole purpose was to maintain a veneer of indifference. My typical calls to Sprint would last 40 minutes, and benefit from such rocket-science advice as, “Have you tried turning your phone on and off yet?” Their conclusion was often that I needed to take my phone to the Sprint Store, a corporate apparatus which would have displaced Dante’s central ring of hell had it existed in the late middle ages.
Did we substitute one corporate overlord for another? Possibly. But the new overlord makes billing explicit without the need to nickel and dime me with hidden fees. The new overlord has terrific customer service, as compared with the near-Soviet experience of waiting only to get an incompetent or impotent rep on the phone with Sprint. And the new overlord provides a product that makes my life better and easier, for less money.
If you’re going to live in the shadow of a corporate overlord, why not one that provides great bread and circus?
If you try Project Fi, I’d be grateful if you use this link. It scores us both a $20 credit toward our next Fi phone bill.
*The alludes to a short story by David Foster Wallace in his collection, Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. His writing is brilliant and incisive, but be warned, sensitive reader, his specialty is exposing the inner workings of broken men.