I wrote some time ago about the two services offered by Google (Project Fi) and T Mobile, with a particular interest on the travel applications. Both services offer some great things to travelers, but the argument on which was actually better remains anecdotal.
Here’s a background post on this for you who missed it. In that post I felt that Fi was superior to T mobile, primarily due to International Data speed. Fi appeared, on paper, to operate at twice the speed of T Mobile. Having bought a Nexus 5x from Project Fi for my trip around South America, Vinh from MilesPerDay offered to send me a Sim from T Mobile that he had, and so I embarked on a journey not only to see some of the most amazing places on earth, but to also see how the two services compared.
T Mobile performed consistently throughout the trip. It worked in every location visited other than the Falkland Islands. The data speeds were around 0.13 Mbps up and down. Project FI worked at about double those speeds, reaching into the 0.30 Mbps range. While both are slow compared to the 4G LTE speeds we are used to, the difference between 0.13 and 0.30 is noticeable.
I had thought that Project Fi was the clear winner, until it started behaving in an unusual manner, refusing to connect to networks in 3 of the 5 Countries that we visited. When it did connect, speeds were 2-3x faster than T Mobile.
- Chile (multiple cities) both connected without issue. Speeds 2-3x faster on Fi.
- Argentina (multiple cities) Fi would not connect in Argentina at all, over a period of a week in three different cities. T Mobile connected everywhere, offering consistent speeds.
- Falkland Islands – neither phone would connect here (nor would a roaming ATT iPhone 6)
- Uruguay Fi would not connect in Uruguay, T Mobile was consistent.
- Brazil- Both connected without issue. Speeds 2-3x faster on Fi.
Additionally, we got a signal when sailing through the Beagle channel, which was pretty impressive, I believe it was through Project Fi, but am not totally certain as my mental notes aren’t what they used to be.
Here’s some screenshots of the data speed
I did try to work with Project Fi to get the connection issue resolved. They recommended attempts to manually connect to networks/reboots/etc. I also sent through bug reports. Nothing helped.
It was a little frustrating, because Fi would tell me that 3 local networks were available, but simply refused to connect, yet when I swapped out the Sim to T Mobile it would hook in straight away, and provide consistent service.
Other notable differences and concerns
Project Fi handles data usage differently from T Mobile. With T Mobile you get unlimited data (albeit at slower speeds) with Fi, you pay per Gb used. However, Fi is a little weird in how it bills.
With Fi you estimate your usage needs. For example, I picked 2GB data, for $20, on top of the $20 per month line charge. Here’s how it works on my bill:
- $20 line
- $20 Estimated 2 GB data
- tax.. total $45
- $20 Line
- $20 Estimated 2 GB data
- -$15.78 (1.578GB of data from Jan wasn’t used and rebated)
- $0.09 Call (3 cents per minute Chile to Chile local call)
- $4.28 International Data
- tax etc
As such, Fi International Data is charged at the same rate as domestic US data, but is charged separately.. it all comes out in the wash, but is just weird.
On a more serious (and weird) note
Calling with Fi is a powder keg. From above, I called a guy in Chile on his cell to arrange a car rental. The charge was 3 cents per minute, which is fantastic. However, each carrier with Fi has a price agreement in place, and that means that you could call a local phone like I did, to arrange a car or tour, and be charged a huge amount of money for it.
If you were to call Switzerland to confirm your vacation details, depending on the carrier that you use you could be charged up to $2.50 per minute for that. For a full rate table check here. If you used Google Hangouts to call you’d be notified of the price, but on Project Fi you’d only know when you get the bill. Note that it says the rates are for calling TO these countries from the US, I wouldn’t be surprised if you get charged the same within the country. The reality is that Project Fi is younger, and doesn’t have the cross border agreements resolved in the manner that other telecom carriers have. That doesn’t mean that they couldn’t grow into something spectacular, but for now, they remain a project.
Personally, I have kept my Project Fi phone despite the inferior performance against T Mobile as we have another multi country trip coming up soon, and I think it might be useful to give it a bit more of a run. I’m not sure I’ll test it against T Mobile again for that trip as the swapping of SIMs is annoying.
Overall the most important lesson I took from the experiment is that on paper Project Fi looks better, but sometimes it’s best to actually do a side by side evaluation in the real world when making such decisions. Faster data that doesn’t connect isn’t very fast at all.