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Google's Project Fi is great, but the UK doesn't need it

Matt Brian, @m4tt
04.23.15
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For years, there have been rumblings that Google was looking to get into the carrier business, but it took until yesterday for the search giant to finally reveal what it's been working on. It's called Project Fi, and it's a unique new service that bears little resemblance to the traditional operator model. To provide mobile coverage, Google will be piggybacking on the networks of T-Mobile and Sprint -- two of America's largest carriers -- and using millions of pre-vetted WiFi hotspots. Throw in unlimited free international texting, WiFi tethering and data coverage in over 120 countries, and you've got something genuinely exciting -- if you live in the US and own a Nexus 6, at least. You see, if you hail from the UK, what Google's offering just isn't that innovative. Perks that may make waves over the pond are pretty commonplace here, and are fast becoming standard competitive procedure.

Take pricing, for instance. In the US, both mobile and broadband subscriptions are significantly more expensive than they are in Britain. Early upgrade offers and general competition has driven pricing down somewhat, but Google wants to put more control back in the customer's hands. With Fi, the only thing you pay is a $20 monthly "Basics" fee and $10 per gigabyte of data (you're refunded for any unused data you've purchased upfront at the end of the month). That means you can get up and running for as little as $30 (roughly £20) a month, which undercuts a number of plans from AT&T, Verizon and others. If you're heavy on the downloads, however, that bill can run into the hundreds -- $120, or around £80, buys you unlimited domestic and international calls, texts and 10GB of data per month.

If you travel regularly, it might be worth the investment, but in the UK, carriers are embroiled in a race to the bottom over pricing. Thanks to increased competition, all-you-can-eat tariffs are becoming more readily available. Three now offers unlimited calls/texts/4G data and roaming in 18 countries from £27 per month for new customers (some existing subscribers pay as little as £15). Even without roaming, all-you-can-eat tariffs are now dropping towards the magical £10 barrier. Just today, Carphone Warehouse went one better than Three (even though it's relying on the operator's network) by launching low-cost 4G tariffs that give customers free access to their existing data allowances in 22 countries. UK carriers tend to cover the most popular holiday hotspots, but it's true that Google's capacity to offer roaming in 120 countries (and unlimited WiFi tethering) is currently unmatched.

Google's Project Fi

Another of Project Fi's clever features is its ability to switch over to WiFi if cellular network quality isn't cutting the mustard. Google's put in work to pre-approve open networks and automatically connect users while encrypting their communications to ensure they can't be eavesdropped on. While Google relies on its own installations and those from selected partners, most UK carriers also offer free WiFi hotspots for customers and also make use of WiFi calling features. O2 is one such company with an artillery of hotspots, and it's stolen a march on Google by automatically pairing customers to nearby WiFi access points when cellular connections are weaker.

EE recently enabled seamless WiFi calling on newer iPhone and Samsung handsets, while Three encourages its customers to make use of its free WiFi calling apps. A native experience will supersede this eventually, and Vodafone's gearing up to launch the same feature this summer. While Ofcom legislates to ensure carriers meet their UK geographical coverage targets, the availability of WiFi calling helps offset these so-called "not-spots."

This isn't to say that Google's Project Fi isn't a good idea. In fact, it's a great idea. As it stands, though, it serves consumers who have been forced to put up with expensive and feature-restricted tariffs offered by US carriers. If it were to come to the UK, Fi might find that our fleet of providers have already skated to where the puck might be, and are intent on being one step ahead of a newcomer with a view to changing the game. Granted, Google has a more extensive roaming network on its side, but UK carriers are already ferociously competitive with one another, to the ultimate benefit of consumers. Should a new player enter the game, that debutant would likely discover firsthand how quick they are to react to even the possibility of healthy competition.

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