Is Google's Project Fi right for you?

If you're an Android fan who frequently travels internationally, the Project Fi mobile service could be your ticket to big savings. But there are a few things you should know. CNET's Marguerite Reardon explains.

Google's Project Fi mobile service can save you big bucks, especially if you're traveling internationally. But it might not be a good fit for everyone.

In this edition of Ask Maggie I explain the ins and outs of Project Fi, Google's wireless service that runs off of the Sprint and T-Mobile networks. I also highlight why some people might want to think twice before ditching their old carrier to join Google's mobile revolution.

Dear Maggie,

I'm planning a trip abroad this summer. I read your Ask Maggie column last week that offered advice on how to take your cell phone international without spending an arm and a leg. I saw some comments after the story about Google's Project Fi as an inexpensive alternative to a traditional carrier when traveling. I'm a Verizon customer with an iPhone 6. Should I ditch Verizon and sign up for Project Fi ahead of my trip?

Thanks,
Confused About Wireless

Dear Confused,

The short answer to your question is a big "maybe." Project Fi could definitely save you some money, both domestically and abroad. But there are a few limitations you should be aware of before you jump ship.

What is Project Fi?

Google's Project Fi wireless service is great for international travelers. But it might not be a good fit for everyone.


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Project Fi is Google's attempt to shake up the wireless industry with cheaper plans. The service uses a combination of cellular coverage from T-Mobile and Sprint and local Wi-Fi networks. A key aspect of Project Fi's service is technology that determines which network offers the best connection, allowing it to seamlessly switch among these networks if one connection weakens.

Since its launch last April, Project Fi has largely been an experiment, with the service available only by invitation. Earlier this month, Google opened the service up to everyone, making it easy to sign on.

The biggest benefit of Project Fi is its low cost. Users in the US pay $20 a month for unlimited calls and texts. Adding data costs $10 for each gigabyte used. If customers don't use their allotted amount in a month, they get a credit for unused data the next month. If you go over your data allotment, you're charged for the additional data. This is appealing to a lot of people, because you truly pay for what you use.

The great news for international travelers is that you can still get unlimited text messaging and Project Fi doesn't charge roaming rates for data usage in more than 120 countries. This means it still costs $10 per gigabyte of data. This is a huge benefit considering that Verizon charges $2.05 per megabyte of data. (Keep in mind that voice service is charged on a per minute basis, and prices vary depending on the country you're visiting.)

Because Project Fi is always looking for the best network connection and the service tries to connect you to a Wi-Fi signal, you may actually use less data than you would on a traditional cellular carrier, which will reduce your costs even more. (Wi-Fi is not counted against your monthly data usage.) For your protection, Project Fi uses a secure connection even over public Wi-Fi networks.

OK, so what's the catch?

The biggest downside for you is that Project Fi is available only on LG's Nexus 5X, Motorola's Nexus 6 and Huawei's Nexus 6P. This means you'd have to buy a new phone and leave the Apple iPhone ecosystem if you wanted to switch to Project Fi.

The other potential downside is that when you're in the US and Wi-Fi isn't available, you'll be roaming on either Sprint or T-Mobile. Their networks aren't as widespread as Verizon's, so this means that depending on where you live and work, you may get spotty coverage when Wi-Fi isn't available. But if you live and work in an urban area, you may not notice the difference in coverage, since both Sprint and T-Mobile work pretty well in most big US cities. Both have been steadily improving with their 4G speeds as well.

What should you do?

If you plan to travel outside the US often and you live in an area where Sprint and T-Mobile coverage isn't an issue, switching to Project Fi and getting a new Nexus 5X, which is now only $199 when bought with Project Fi service, might be the way to go. You'd definitely save money on your trip and you'd likely save money at home.

But if the trip this summer is a once-in-a-lifetime or even a-once-every-five-years affair, it might not be worth it for you to make the leap, especially if you're satisfied with Verizon at home. The Nexus 5X gets high marks from reviewers, but it's not an iPhone. Some people are happy making the switch between Apple and Android, others aren't. I hope this advice helps.

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.

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