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Project Fi is now Google Fi, and it will work with iPhones and most Android devices

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Looks like the MVNO is here to stay

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Three years after it first launched, Google is making its cell service a little more official today. Project Fi is graduating into something a little more ambitious and getting a new name in the process: Google Fi. But the bigger news is that it’s also going to support more phones — a lot of phones — including the iPhone and “the majority of Android devices.”

This isn’t the first time that Fi has worked with Apple devices; you could get a data-only SIM for iPads as secondary devices before. And technically, a Fi SIM has always worked in an iPhone, provided you adjusted the data settings on the phone. But now Google is supporting iPhones directly for new customers, though it says that the support is in beta and requires “a few extra steps to get set up.” There will be a new Google Fi iOS app to help ease the process along.

More specifically, you’l find that Visual Voicemail won’t work anymore, but iMessage will. iOS won’t pull the right MMS and data connections automatically, but it does work with just a few copy-and-pastes into settings.

For Android phones, setup should be a lot more straightforward. Though by going with Fi instead of a more traditional carrier, you should be aware that all customer support happens online or over the phone. In my experience, that hasn’t been a big issue, but sometimes it is nice to have a store to walk into to get in-person help.

There is a new logo to go along with the new name.

Google Fi is an MVNO, which stands for “mobile virtual network operator.” That means that your actual service comes from larger carriers; Fi uses T-Mobile, Sprint, and US Cellular as its backbone. However, only a few phones (like the Pixels and others that Google sells) are able to dynamically switch between those carriers’ networks, and that doesn’t change today. Like before, phones that aren’t explicitly “designed for Fi” are stuck on T-Mobile’s network. Here’s how Google Fi will work with iPhones, for example.

Whatever network you’re technically on, Google allows people with phones running Android 9 Pie to route their data through its own VPN. However, Google Fi still has some catching up to do with other carriers when it comes to other features, including support for the RCS Universal Profile for texting and number sharing for things like LTE smartwatches.

But the real difference with Fi is the pricing model: it’s much simpler than what most other networks offer. It’s $20 for a phone line and $10 per gig of data you use — capped at $60 under a newer program it calls “Bill Protection.” The reason I like it is that you can get a data-only SIM, which costs no additional money per month beyond the data you use it on it. I think it’s one of the best deals in wireless. But depending on your data habits, the same might not be true for you.

Until now, I’ve had a shadow of a doubt about Google’s commitment to the Project Fi service. It’s not just that it was dubbed a “project,” but also that Google has, shall we say, a mixed record when it comes to providing communication services. Fi grew out of Google Voice in some ways, a service that has had sporadic stretches of stagnated support. And that’s to say nothing of Google Fiber, the broadband service that started with an aggressive rollout before faltering.

The expanded support helps to alleviate some of those concerns. And perhaps in another sign to show that it’s serious, Google is looking to juice sign-ups and sales with a deal that essentially pays for your phone, though it’s only going to be offered today, November 28th. It applies to both new subscribers and current customers:

For any phone you purchase [from Google Fi], you’ll receive the same value back in your choice of travel gift cards, which you can spend on flights with Delta and Southwest or lodging with Airbnb and hotels.com. Alternatively, if you’d rather set up Google Fi on your current phone, you’ll earn $200 of Fi service credit when you sign up today.