Does Google's new Pixel phone make it time to try Project Fi too?

In this edition of Ask Maggie, CNET's Marguerite Reardon offers a refresher on Google's first wireless service, Project Fi.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
4 min read

Google has added its new flagship phone, the Pixel, to the device lineup for its Project Fi wireless service. But is Project Fi right for you?

Google on Tuesday announced the Pixel and Pixel XL, two high-end smartphones meant to go up against Samsung's Galaxy devices and Apple's iPhones. It's Google's first attempt to market a smartphone to the masses.

Along with getting your hands on the device through Verizon, you can also use the Pixel on Project Fi, the experimental wireless network Google launched in 2015. Up to now, the service worked only with three of Google's Nexus branded smartphones: the Nexus 6P, Nexus 5X and Nexus 6.

In this edition of Ask Maggie, I'll offer some more details on Project Fi and help one reader, curious about Google's new Pixel, decide whether to give Project Fi a chance too.

Dear Maggie,

I'm intrigued by Google's new Pixel phone. I read it will be available on Google's wireless network, Project Fi. I'm not really sure what Project Fi is all about. Is it a service I should consider? Or should I stick with Verizon or some other major carrier?

Curious About Google

Dear Curious,

The beauty of the Pixel is that it gives you lots of options. Even though the Pixel is being marketed as an exclusive to Verizon, the truth is that it's also sold through Google as an unlocked phone and can be used on any wireless network in the US, including Google's own Project Fi.


Pixel Phone by Google

James Martin/CNET

The first question you need to ask yourself is whether you can even access Project Fi. Once you've figured that out, you can start comparing it to services from other carriers.

Refresher on Project Fi

Let's start with the basics. Google's Project Fi is a service that uses a combination of cellular coverage from Sprint, T-Mobile and US Cellular as well as local Wi-Fi networks. This means you need to make sure you live and work in an area where at least one of these carriers offers strong coverage. 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, so having access to two or to all three of these networks is even better.

The biggest benefit of Project Fi's Wi-Fi-first approach is that it can access more than a million Wi-Fi hotspots to provide inexpensive wireless internet connectivity. The idea is that if you can use less-expensive Wi-Fi infrastructure more often than a cellular network, you can keep service costs low.

Plans start at $20 for unlimited talk, text messaging and access to Wi-Fi based data. The price increases by $10 for each gigabyte of data service you use on one of the three cellular networks Project Fi accesses when Wi-Fi isn't available. So if you want 1GB of data per month to use while roaming on a cellular data network, that will cost you $30 a month. With 2GB of data, you'll spend $40 a month, and so on.

Up close with Google's power-packed Pixel XL

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The pricing is pretty straightforward, but if you're using a lot of cellular data, those charges can add up quickly. For about the same price as that 4GB or 5GB of data on Project Fi, you can get unlimited talk, text and data on Sprint and T-Mobile. Some prepaid offers are also comparable in price.

Wi-Fi-first competitor Republic Wireless, which will also support the Pixel, is one such option that's cheaper than Project Fi. Its basic service with unlimited talk, text and Wi-Fi data starts at $15 a month. It also offers a better deal for customers who need more data for cellular roaming. Its service, which works with either Sprint or T-Mobile, costs $45 a month for 4GB of cellular data, while Project Fi charges $60 for 4GB of cellular roaming.

Still, Project Fi has its benefits. Because Project Fi doesn't charge hefty roaming fees for data service when you're abroad, it's a particularly attractive plan for international travelers. The service is available in more than 135 different countries. Phone calls while abroad if you're not using a Wi-Fi hotspot are 20 cents per minute and text messaging is free regardless of whether you're on Wi-Fi or roaming onto a local cellular carrier.

The bottom line

Project Fi is great for people who don't use much cellular data, because they're either light data users or they have access to Wi-Fi most of the time. It's also a great service for folks who travel abroad frequently. If this isn't you, you may want to consider prepaid or unlimited plans from carriers like T-Mobile and Sprint or other Wi-Fi-first operators, like Republic Wireless, which can offer you a better deal.

The good news is that the Pixel can be used on just about any US carrier, so you can give Project Fi a chance and if you don't like it, you can switch to another carrier.

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.

Watch this: Hands-on with Google's Pixel and Pixel XL phones