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Six months in, Google's Project Fi remains an enigma

Derek Walter | Dec. 4, 2015
Google says it wants to accelerate the growth of its mobile experiment in the new year, but it may need more phones and a tablet or two for a wider reach.

To determine what form that acceleration could take, it’s worth looking at another business where Google has gone into new territory. Whenever Google has done this in the past, the goal has been to push an existing industry in a direction more favorable for its business. Chrome OS pushed the price of Internet-connected laptops down. Google Fiber is shoving the cable industry into the world of faster speeds. The latter is and especially telling example.

The Google Fiber playbook

In 2012, Google Fiber began as an effort to push broadband Internet speeds to new heights by dumping old phone and cable wires and stringing fiber directly to residential homes. Not long after Google’s gigabit Internet service caught on, suddenly AT&T, Comcast, and others ramped up their Internet speeds and lowered prices—but only in areas where Google competes. Fiber didn’t exactly take over (it’s still only running or scheduled to come to seven cities so far) but it’s shaping expectations for Internet service.

It’s sounds like a similar story to what’s going on with Project Fi. While T-Mobile has pushed other companies to change their pricing structures, Project Fi could serve as a model for how to further simplify plans or engineer better coverage. Google will have certainly acquired a lot of knowledge about reception and connectivity by doing Project Fi, which is something that may produce smarter radios for smartphones or other means for a more ubiquitous connection. And unlike Google Fiber, the whole country is effectively a competing market for Project Fi. The real hold-back is the limited device availability.

The most detailed public statement comes from Sabrina Ellis, a director of product management at Google. At the September press event debuting the Nexus 6P and 5X, she proclaimed that both phones would join the Nexus 6 on the network.

nexus 5x nexus 6p
Both the Nexus 6P and 5X work with Google’s Project Fi network.

“We launched Project Fi a few months ago to offer a fast, easy wireless experience and to drive innovation with leading partners like Sprint and T-Mobile,” she said. “ With today’s announcement, Fi users will have a larger set of phones to choose from.”

Along with praising Fi’s “high quality connection that intelligently selects between networks” she remarked that, “It’s still early days for Project Fi.”

While that statement alone doesn’t guarantee a long-term commitment, there are other hints out there, especially when it comes to expanding to other devices. The Moto X Pure Edition, for example, unofficially works with Project Fi. The fact that an unlocked phone can talk to Project Fi on some level (only the T-Mobile towers, it appears) demonstrates that it’s entirely possible for future unlocked devices to work on Fi along with other carriers. Don’t be surprised if the Moto X or another phone makes it to Project Fi in the new year.

 

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