Google Fi brought a lot of innovations and customer-friendly features to the wireless market. I’d argue that Fi’s biggest innovations have been in network switching. Subscribers using “Designed for Fi” phones can automatically switch between coverage from T-Mobile, Sprint, and U.S. Cellular’s networks.
Fi’s network switching is about to become a lot less interesting. Sprint’s network will disappear. U.S. Cellular doesn’t have a nationwide network.
The darker shade in the map below shows where U.S. Cellular’s network is available:1
U.S. Cellular’s network does not cover the majority of the U.S. Once Sprint’s network is gone, Google Fi will be a T-Mobile-based carrier in many places.2
T-Mobile’s network will get better as it integrates Sprint’s assets, so I don’t expect Fi to decrease substantially in quality. However, Fi may become a much less competitive option in comparison to other carriers. There are a lot of carriers that run over T-Mobile’s network. These carriers will also offer better performance as T-Mobile improves its network. Some carriers using T-Mobile’s network are priced much better than Fi. For example, Mint Mobile sells a plan with 8GB of data, unlimited minutes, and unlimited texts for as low as $20 per month. Fi would charge at least $70 per month for the same level of usage.3
I don’t mean to imply Fi will be left in the dust. The carrier offers high priority data, amazing international roaming options, and a user-friendly experience. Many low-cost, T-Mobile-based carriers don’t have those elements. Can Fi convince subscribers that Fi’s premium features justify the service’s price tag?
Will MVNOs get squeezed?
Low-cost carriers may get squeezed by T-Mobile. When Sprint goes offline, MVNOs will have fewer networks they can offer service over. The reduction in options may allow T-Mobile to increase the rates it charges carriers that use T-Mobile’s network.4 While low-cost carriers may have no option but to raise the prices charged to consumers, Fi may be better positioned. Fi is fairly expensive. It’s unlikely T-Mobile would charge Fi so much that Google would struggle to stay in the market.
- The map came from U.S. Cellular’s website on 7/8/20. There may be some discrepancies between the areas U.S. Cellular defines as a licensed market and the areas where U.S. Celluar’s native network is available. Note that U.S. Cellular’s own subscribers typically have roaming access on other networks when outside of U.S. Cellular’s network boundaries.
- Fi could end up with additional network partners, but I don’t see that as too likely anytime soon. I don’t think Verizon or AT&T would be excited to partner with Fi.
- There are lots of limitations to this comparison. Among other things, Fi charges for data by the megabyte. Mint allocates a fixed amount of data to subscribers each month.
- When trying to get regulators to approve the Sprint & T-Mobile merger, T-Mobile suggested it would take steps to keep the MVNO market vibrant. It’s not clear to me that T-Mobile was making these statements with sincerity. Time will tell.