You've now got the option of choosing Google as your wireless carrier instead of Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, or T-Mobile. Well, Nexus 6 owners do. With Project Fi, Google is aiming to make its presence felt in the mobile industry as a service provider in addition to being the leading force behind Android. Google's focus with the new effort is simplicity and bills that aren't confusing. It's an approach not unlike the one John Legere's T-Mobile has tried to lead with its Uncarrier effort. But how does Google's plan compare to what you'd get from the biggest players in wireless right now? Let's take a look.
For $20 a month, Google gives you unlimited domestic voice calling and texts, unlimited international texts, coverage in over 120 countries, and support for Wi-Fi tethering. It's all centered around a hybrid take on wireless coverage that's new to most consumers; Project Fi claims to seamlessly hand off between Wi-Fi and the mobile networks of T-Mobile and Sprint in the United States, though we can't yet say how reliably it works. A coverage map is here. And then comes the data.
Project Fi's plans are cheaper than any major carrier
Google sells monthly data at a price of $10 per gigabyte: $10 for 1GB, $20 for 2GB, $30 for 3GB, $50 for 5GB, and so on. But the innovative part of Project Fi revolves around the data you don't end up using. If you fail to burn through all the data you've paid for in a month, Google will automatically "refund" you for the unused portion as a credit on your next bill. "For example, if your data budget is 3GB and you use 2.2GB, you'll get $8 (for 800MB of unused data) to use next month to lower your bill," Google says.
But the company is also taking a refreshing approach to overages. Whereas carriers like Verizon and AT&T hit subscribers with stiff fees for going over their data limit — even by a small amount — here again Google will only charge you for what you use. Go over what you've paid for by 500MB, for example, and Google will only ask for an extra $5. There's no harsh penalty for using more data when you need it.
But you've got to buy a Nexus 6 to sign up
But there are limits to what Project Fi can give you. Mainly, there's no such thing as a family plan and data cannot be shared between users. Everyone must have their own individual Fi plan. With that in mind, we'll limit the following comparisons to individual plans offered by the big four carriers in the United States.
Read next: How does Google Fi's coverage compare?
Most importantly, Project Fi currently supports just one phone: the Nexus 6. You can't use an iPhone with it, nor Samsung's new Galaxy S6. Google's phablet starts at $649, runs the stock version of Android 5.0, and is quick to receive new software updates. But its size can prove unwieldy, and battery life along with camera performance can't compete with some more recent Android flagships. Thankfully, conversations can be carried across any and all devices that support Google Hangouts, so you won't always need the Nexus at your side.
When looking at single-line plans, Verizon's cheapest option is a 1GB package with unlimited voice and unlimited text priced at $60 per month with a traditional contract, or $45 monthly if you sign onto Edge installment plan when buying a smartphone. 2GB is $75 ($60 with Edge), but if you need more data you'll need to switch to Verizon's More Everything plans, which are generally suited better for customers with multiple phone lines. A single line and 3GB of data will cost you $90 ($75 with Edge), while 4GB will cost you $100 ($85). Note that these prices include the access fee that Verizon charges to operate a smartphone on your line. Project Fi does not charge Nexus 6 owners any overage fees.
Fi's hybrid network could still fall short of Verizon's vast coverage
For those same data tiers, Project Fi would cost $30, $40, $50, and $60, respectively. And remember that you're credited for unused data. Verizon Wireless currently does not offer any sort of rollover data plan as T-Mobile and AT&T do. If you don't use the data you've paid for, it's gone. And for most plans, Verizon will charge an overage of $15 once you've exceeded your plans data. That applies for every extra gigabyte, and is billed even if you go over your plan's data by even a small amount.
Prepaid: Verizon offers two main plans for prepaid customers, and both include unlimited talk and text. The first, with 1GB of included data, is $45 per month. The other, with a higher 2.5GB ceiling, is $60. Additional data can be purchased for $10 per gigabyte.
Verizon Wireless allows customers to choose from many smartphones, though prepaid options are more limited. The company's network offers wider coverage than either T-Mobile or Sprint and is frequently regarded as the best in the United States. You're definitely paying more to be on that network, though.
Including its access fee on a single line, AT&T's comparable 1GB plan is priced at $65 per month. This drops to $50 if you are a month-to-month customer, bring your own smartphone, or purchase a device through AT&T Next. 3GB is $80 ($65), and moving up to 4GB hikes rates to $110 ($95).
AT&T's Mobile Share Value plans offer rollover data, carrying unused data from your current month over to the next — but you must use it before that second billing period is up or you'll lose any remaining data from the original month. Project Fi does not preserve your unused data from one month to the next; instead, it automatically applies a credit for unused data to the following month's bill.
AT&T charges overage penalties of $20 per 500MB if you're on the 1GB plan, or $15 per 1GB for all other plans. Overage data does not roll over. The company does not offer complimentary overseas coverage, but allows unlimited texting from the US to anywhere in the world as part of Mobile Share Value plans.
Prepaid: AT&T's offers a prepaid plan with 1.5GB of data, unlimited talk and text, plus unlimited texting to Mexico and "over 100" countries. A more expensive $60 option includes 4GB of data and expands on international coverage with free unlimited calling to Mexico. Prepaid plans do not offer rollover data.
AT&T allows customers to choose from many smartphones. The company's network offers wider coverage than either T-Mobile or Sprint.
Sprint (Project Fi partner)
Sprint, a Project Fi partner, offers its own customers unlimited talk, text, and data plans for between $50 (if you pay full price for an iPhone) and $85 (new and existing customers who sign a two-year contract). Sprint's options do not include mobile hotspot functionality, something you get with Project Fi, Verizon, and AT&T. The carrier does support Wi-Fi calling, however, something its larger rivals don't.
Sprint allows customers to choose from many smartphones. The company's cellular network is generally seen as inferior to its competitors.
T-Mobile (Project Fi partner)
All of T-Mobile's data plans offer "unlimited" data, which is to say that after you exceed the high-speed data you've paid for in a month, you can still access the web at much slower, throttled speeds. T-Mobile's plan for 1GB of high-speed data, unlimited talk and text is $50 each month. Bumping up to 3GB of data is $60, 5GB is $70 (the same rate Google charges), and the carrier also offers a proper unlimited data plan for $80 per month. T-Mobile customers do not incur overage fees.
T-Mobile's Uncarrier perks still make a compelling case
T-Mobile's regular Simple Choice plans include Wi-Fi calling and "Uncarrier" features like Music Freedom, which doesn't count streaming from popular music services against your data usage. T-Mobile also offers free international service (with slower data speeds), likely in the same 120 countries that Google says it will extend coverage to. For those on 3GB or 5GB data plans, the company's Data Stash feature carries over unused data from one month to the next, and new customers on those plans are gifted 10GB of 4G LTE to start off with.
Project Fi does not offer perks resembling those from T-Mobile, nor can you purchase an unlimited plan through Google's new service. But for tiered data, Fi's prices are mostly lower; 1GB is $30 each month and 3GB is $50. T-Mobile is the only major US carrier to match Google's prices at any level, asking the same $70 that Project Fi does for 5GB of data.
Prepaid: T-Mobile offers a 1GB prepaid plan for $40 per month, 3GB for $50 per month, and 5GB for $60 per month. Of note, you can also purchase a prepaid T-Mobile plan that includes 100 minutes of talk, unlimited texting, and up to 5GB of high-speed data for just $30 — but this option is available exclusively at Walmart stores and cannot be purchased from the carrier directly.
T-Mobile allows customers to choose from many smartphones. Its network is viewed as strong in major cities, but tends to be weaker than Verizon and AT&T in suburban and rural areas.
So that's how Project Fi lines up against the big four when it comes to pricing. You can find cheaper prepaid options with other MVNOs like Straight Talk, and startups like Republic Wireless offer service based on the idea Google is running with here. But most US wireless customers are aligned with one of the major players. You'll save money by going with Google (and sometimes earn some back), but you're also taking a huge gamble. We still have no idea how Google's mashup Wi-Fi / Sprint / T-Mobile network will fare in the real world, but we can't wait to try.
Updated, 4/22/15, 7:45PM ET: Added more plan options for Verizon.
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