Google’s “Project FI”, Can you hear me now?

Project FI!

A month or so before I started considering a trip abroad, I read a blog post about Google’s “Project FI”. The concept that Google wants to become it’s own cellular carrier (or even become an abstraction over other carriers) — is quite an interesting move, especially — given my history of endless unhappiness regarding my phone carriers. Having traveled to Europe a number of times over the last 5 years, I was always extremely frustrated with the $30 for 120mb of data — really? Of course two weeks in Europe, especially if you intend to continue doing your job, means that you are going to wind up spending some serious money. I know you can run around to find a SIM card that works in one part of the country you are currently in, and deal with all the BS involved in activating that (ask me about Bueno’s Aires.. what a nightmare). But I know there has to be a better solution to this problem, right now…

Alternatively, you have T-Mobile with unlimited data internationally you say? Well that is kind of awesome, and I did seriously consider going that route. However, what I have witnessed in this regard, is extremely slow data, and questionable service across many countries. I’ve also noticed constant dissatisfaction regarding the quality of the service here in the US (especially my neighborhood of San Francisco — The Chinese Russian Beach Nob).

Long story short, having always been an Apple fan boy, I still signed up for the beta program and then promptly went back to life and forgot about it. About 10 days before my departure, I received the invitation to sign up — and being the early adopter that I am (and also having had some regrets about not getting the iPhone 6 plus) — I went for it. A few days later, a Nexus 6 showed up (the only device currently working with FI) — with a massive screen, running all the Androids. I had no idea what to do with this beast, so I ported my Google Voice number after downloading all my Google Voice data to Google Drive using Takeout.

I then went to town installing all the apps I know and use on my iPhone, practiced using the straight forward tethering functionality from a cafe near by. After getting 1password working, and authenticator, to get into all the things, life was good. The size of the device and my feelings about Android can be read about in a separate in progress post, a detailed review of Android, Nexus 6 and packing light.

It was a very strange feeling, to leave the house without an iPhone in my pocket after so many years, and I quickly realized that my plan to get a Lyft to the airport was flawed in that I hadn’t yet installed it, and that my Lyft account was tethered to my phone number, which I no longer had access to. My fears that an iPhone-less trip could be a total disaster, started to creep in, the clock is ticking — must get to the airport! So I quickly installed Lyft, registered and connected it to my Paypal, boom done, problem solved.

Somewhere around 16 hours later I landed in Amsterdam, feeling the normal amount of miserableness one feels about 12 hours of flying in coach. I turned on my new trusty Nexus 6 to check all the things, and was faced with empty bars and an exclamation point. I wandered the airport until I found WI-FI that was actually usable (under a stair well), and started firing off support requests through the Project FI app. And given my complete lack of patience and internet addiction, I called them over Skype. They suggested I cycle the phone, turn airplane mode off and on, enable roaming, enable international service. I did it all, no dice. However, I had a hotel to get to, and a nap to take, so I loaded the Maps app, and plotted my course.

Upon arrival to the hotel, I was told that I had approximately 5 hours to kill before I could get to my room, so I left my pack and headed out for a pint. While I sat there off-line blogging in my leather journal about the long list of big decisions I had made recently, I was secretly hoping that the device would start buzzing in my pocket as it found some suitable service. It was a wonderfully sunny day, and walking around the canals of Amsterdam completely disconnected — wasn’t the worst experience ever. :)

After returning to the hotel and jumping on WI-FI, I went back and forth with their support team about 5 times, who seemed to be trying various things on their end. Finally, around the time I got into my hotel — I get a notification saying “Welcome to the Netherlands”. It also let me know that I have free SMS’s, .20 cent/min cellular calling and data remains $10/gig (as it is here in the US). We are in business. I thought the support team was responsive, and on top of things, which made me feel much better about my decision to execute on this experiment.

Data speeds were fast, and it was nice to know that I wasn’t going to have my bank account destroyed if I had to make a call or two, and of course with Telegram — who needs SMS? :)

As I traveled from country to country, it was amazing to disable airport mode and wait for my pocket to buzz with a new welcome message in each country. The terms were consistent, and coverage was shockingly good, given that I was running around some remote places like Norwegian Fjords and the interior of the Greek island, Crete. The exact kind of data I had access to changed in each place as I moved around. I saw 3g, R, LTE, H, and various other denotations, but nearly anytime I went to get a map, read trip advisor, or send a message back home, it worked exactly as expected.

I did however, have one hick-up, after about 2 days in Freiburg, Germany — everything stopped working on my way to the Schauinslandbahn cable car. I had fortunately taken a screen shot of the train schedule and was able to navigate there and back as a result. I also solidified my understanding of two important German adverbs that day “hoch und runter” — they just aren’t cemented into your brain until an intense German lady points out your mistake in front of a giant tour bus… but never-mind. As I left the hotel that morning, I used their WI-FI to send another support message to Project FI (as I had seen flakiness during breakfast having any connectivity at all). While I was wandering the black forest, there were a number of messages from the support team, first suggesting that I try all the standard reset things, and this time with the addition of “clear the app cache, sometimes they get stuck on towers”. After returning to the WI-FI, doing all that, and waiting another 3 hours or so, service came back and suggested and it was again smooth sailing from there.

It does appear that they are still working out some of the kinks in flawlessly moving around the world switching from one carrier to the next, but at the end of the day — I paid the equivalent of 240 mb of AT&T data, for a month of using my device abroad as much as I felt like it. I think I am going to like the future world of competitive cellular carriers. I also do need to say, the wide spread “assumption” that usable WI-FI is everywhere, is total bullshit. Nearly every hotel or hostel I stayed at, was either charging for it by the day, proxied half the internet, or simply wasn’t anywhere near as usable as the cellular service I was receiving from FI. Making quick and potentially expensive decisions about the direction your trip is going, is so much more attainable when you can sit outside in the sun with a liter of Øl (beer) and actually use your technology.

I didn’t remember to take a screen shots upon arrival all places, because I had to Google search to figure out how to get the Nexus 6 to actually take a screenshot. But here are a few welcoming notifications:

Project FI, welcome notifications

Sometimes it pays to try new things, and I plan to fly to Seoul, Korea next month and will be testing FI there — stay tuned for an update.

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