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Google's Project Fi cell phone service is simple, until it's not

Google's Project Fi cell phone service is simple, until it's not


Woe betide you, Google Voice user

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Google's Project Fi, if you don't recall, is the innovative new cell phone service that combines Wi-Fi calling, service that works on either Sprint or T-Mobile's network (whichever is faster), and a cheap and nicely predictable pricing plan that starts at $20 for voice and text and costs $10 per gig of data. It also only works on the Nexus 6. I just got mine set up yesterday, and I'm pleased with it so far, though there are complications I'm still trying to wrap my head around.

The problem is that Fi is essentially sharing infrastructure with the soon-to-be-unceremoniously-destroyed-in-a-spring-cleaning product known as Google Voice. Google has been slowly but surely deprecating Voice by moving most of its features into Hangouts (and, at the same time, slowly but surely extricating Hangouts from Google Plus). It's not a history that inspires confidence. (Google Voice might itself need a short explainer: it was designed to give you one phone number that could work on multiple phones and transcribe voicemail for all of them.)

If you're a Google Voice user, prepare for confusion

If you're not a Google Voice user, you'll find that switching to Project Fi is lovely. You have a service that grabs the best network available, even if that network happens to be a nearby public Wi-Fi hotspot. You have a completely predictable and reasonable cell phone bill every month. You have free (albeit slow) international data. I like it even though neither T-Mobile nor Sprint have networks that work all that well where I live and work — but since Fi works great over Wi-Fi, that's not a problem.

If you are a Google Voice user, prepare for confusion. Voice is great because it abstracts your phone number away from carriers, so you could be free to treat it more like an email address that could go to any device than a phone number controlled by Verizon or AT&T or whomever. But then, Project Fi is itself a carrier that is hell bent on taking back the control of that nice, carrier-agnostic phone number.

It gets worse, I'm afraid. Precisely what happens when you port your number from Voice to Fi (which are kind of the same thing — but not really!) is clear as mud. Many attempts have been made to quash the Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt surrounding these issues. While the various explainers you can find on the web are technically accurate, they are also emotionally unsatisfying. Witness! You won't lose your Google Voice number, and it will still do most of the stuff it did before, but you may have to wend your way back to the 2011-era Google Voice site to manage it. Your texts no longer forward via SMS but they're available in the Hangouts App. You can't call people from Google Voice on the web but you can from Hangouts. Oh, and on Android there's a Hangouts dialer app you can use, sometimes, just because.

Partisans of Fi and Google (and I fully admit it makes sense to be a huge fan of this service) will no doubt be enraged by the previous set of confused grievances. They will argue I'm being deliberately obtuse. It's simple! Just read through this five-part FAQ on Google's site, where everything is explained. And it's true that Fi won't come to your house and set fire to your phone, nor will it actually cause harm to your Google Voice number in any serious way. But then again, there will be some bruising:

Whichever option you choose, once you activate Project Fi service on your phone, you’ll no longer have Google Voice on the Google Account you use with Project Fi. Keep in mind that Project Fi includes many of the best features from Google Voice, but you won’t be able to use the Google Voice website and apps or Google Talk to make calls and send texts, and check new voicemail.

Cool, that makes sense. Except that when you use Fi's wonderful, zero-hold-time customer support phone line, you learn that there is a tiny little link back to Google Voice anyway buried at the very bottom of the Fi settings page — a link you might need to click to fix some stuff up. You'll also lose the ability to record calls, switch calls between phones, or have Google screen calls for you anymore. Oh, and group texting is kind of not available in Hangouts either — but you can do it from the default Messenger app on your Nexus 6.

A long litany of complaints and confusion

That's a long litany of complaints and confusion — but the good news is that most people won't have to deal with any of it. Most people aren't Google Voice users, so instead they'll just get really nice cell phone service. And anybody who's computer savvy enough to have been a Google Voice user in the first place is also likely just the kind of person who's able to navigate this rats nest of migrated features.

None of this should really stop you from switching over to Fi if you've already been wanting to. As a service, Fi is great, and I dearly wish it was available on more than just the Nexus 6. Plus, early adopters get the care package photographed above, which includes a set of earbuds, a case, and a backup battery. Keen.

But while Fi is great, the Google technologies it's tied to are not. Google Voice was a beautiful dream that's about to die in the fires of unrealized ambitions. It's a forlorn corner of Google that could have been so much more than what it became. And I fear that Hangouts is facing the same ignominious fate, especially if it can't get out from under the scattershot product direction it's been suffering from since its very inception. My level of faith that Google can cleanly extricate Fi from Voice and Hangouts from its convoluted history is low. My desire to fully understand how all these products interrelate is even lower. At least it's all easier to figure out than the upgrade schemes on most other carriers.

Project Fi is the right way to pay for cell service. I hope it survives, and I hope it pushes other carriers to simplify their offerings. Mostly, I hope Google does a better job committing to it than it did with Google Voice.

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