Google Fi After The T-Mobile & Sprint Merger

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.

Losing Sprint

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]

Map of licensed U.S. Cellular markets

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.

Tutela’s October 2019 MVNO Report

In October, the network evaluator Tutela released its USA State of MVNOs report. Most network evaluators only assess the performance of the Big Four carriers (AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, and Verizon), so it’s interesting to see Tutela assessing a wider range of carriers.

Near the beginning of the report, Tutela shares some reflections on how the MVNO landscape is changing:[1]

MVNOs and MNO flanker brands in the US carved out a niche largely serving the needs of lower-income customers or those with particular data needs…in 2019, the landscape is rapidly shifting. Technological advancements have made the barrier for operating some kind of network much lower; the entrance of cable companies into the market have pushed MVNO service into the more lucrative postpaid segment; and multi-network MVNOs are innovating on the network side of the equation, rather than solely differentiating on price or customer service.

Methodology

The approach Tutela used to evaluate MVNOs was in line with its usual methodology. The company crowdsourced performance data from typical consumers with the help of code embedded in Tutela’s partners’ apps. In the new report, Tutela primarily considers how well MVNOs performed in regions where at least three of the big four networks offer coverage. Tutela calls these core coverage areas.[2]

Within core coverage areas, Tutela calculates the amount of time subscribers have service that exceeds two different quality thresholds. When service exceeds the “excellent” threshold, subscribers should be able to do highly demanding things like streaming high-definition video or downloading large files quickly. When service exceeds the “core” threshold, subscribers should be able to carry out typical activities like browsing or streaming music without trouble, but performance issues may be encountered with demanding activities.

Results

Here’s Tutela’s visualization of the main results:[3]

Tutela results


A chart of median download speeds shows a similar ranking among carriers:

Tutela Download Speeds

The results aren’t too surprising. Verizon MVNOs come out near the top of the hierarchy, while Sprint MVNOs tend to come out near the bottom. Cricket Wireless has a good score for the core threshold but does poorly in terms of the excellent threshold. That outcome makes sense since Cricket throttles maximum speeds.

Possible selection bias

I often write about how assessments of network performance that use crowdsourced data may be vulnerable to selection bias. These results from Tutela are no exception. In particular, I wonder if the results are skewed based on how high-quality phones used with different carriers tend to be. In general, newer or more expensive phones have better network hardware than older or cheaper phones.

Xfinity Mobile takes the top spot in the rankings. Xfinity Mobile is a new-ish carrier and is restrictive about which phones are eligible for use with the service. I would guess the average phone used with Xfinity Mobile is a whole lot newer and more valuable than the average phone used with TracFone. Similar arguments could be made for why Spectrum or Google Fi may have an advantage.

To Tutela’s credit, the company acknowledges the possibility of selection bias in at least one case:[4]

The second factor explaining Google Fi’s performance compared to Metro or Boost is the device breakdown. Although a broad range of Android and iOS devices work with Google Fi’s service, the network is targeted most heavily at owners of Google’s own Pixel devices…The Pixel devices use top-of-the-line cellular modems, which intrinsically provide a better cellular experience than older or mid-range devices.

Wi-Fi results

Several MVNOs offer access to Wi-Fi hotspots in addition to cellular networks. I’ve been curious how much data carriers send over Wi-Fi, and Tutela’s results give an estimate. While Xfinity Mobile appears to have sent the largest share of its data via hotspots, it’s a smaller share than I expected:[5]

Tutela data suggests that Xfinity Mobile has already succeeded in offloading over 6% of smartphone data traffic onto its Wi-Fi network – far more than any other network.

Tutela also shares a graph comparing hotspot usage among different carriers:[6]

Graph of wi-fi usage share among multiple carriers

Other stuff

There were a few other bits of the report that I found especially interesting. In one section, the report’s authors reflect on the fast growth of MVNOs run by cable companies:[7]

Xfinity Mobile and Spectrum Mobile captured nearly 50% of the postpaid subscriber growth in Q2 2019, and combined added nearly as many postpaid subscribers as host network Verizon.

In another part of the report, Tutela shares a map displaying the most common host network that Google Fi subscribers access. It looks like there are a decent number of areas where Sprint or U.S. Cellular provide the primary host network:[8]

Google Fi’s Unlimited Plan – Is It Worth It?

Yesterday, Google Fi launched an unlimited plan. While Fi labels the new plan as “unlimited,” it has a couple of limitations potential customers should recognize:

  • Video streaming will be limited to 480p quality.
  • After 22GB of regular data use on a line, data speeds will be throttled to 256Kbps.

In my opinion, 480p quality (sometimes described as DVD-quality) is perfectly fine. However, plenty of people disagree with me and like to watch videos in higher resolutions. I see the reduced speeds after 22GB of use as a more serious limitation. 256Kbps is slow enough to make some online activities frustrating or impossible.

Google Fi customers can now choose between Fi’s old, Flexible plan or the new, Unlimited plan:

Fi’s Flexible Plan

The flexible plan uses the following pricing structure before taxes and fees:

  • $20 for unlimited talk and text on the first line. $15 for each additional line.
  • Pay-for-what-you-use data charged at $10 for each gigabyte of use. Data charges are capped after a threshold amount of data use that varies with the number of lines on the plan (6GB for a single-line plan).

The flexible plan has slightly different policies:

  • After 15GB of use on a line in a single month, speeds are capped to 256Kbps.
  • Video can be streamed at 1080p quality.
  • International calls from the U.S. incur reasonable, per-minute charges (subscribers on Fi’s unlimited plan can make calls from the U.S. to over 50 countries at no additional cost).

Fi’s Unlimited Plan

Google Fi’s unlimited plan is priced based on the number of lines used:[1]

Number of LinesCost Per Unlimited LineBreak-even Point
(Gigs per line)
1$705.00GB
2$604.25GB
3$503.33GB
4$452.88GB
5$452.90GB
6$452.92GB

Fi Flexible Vs. Fi Unlimited

If you expect the average data use across lines on your plan will consistently fall below the appropriate break-even point listed in the table above, you should probably subscribe to Fi’s Flexible plan. If you expect data use to be above the break-even point consistently, you should probably subscribe to Fi’s Unlimited plan.

If you’re unsure about your data use or use very different amounts of data each month, choosing a plan may be harder. Google Fi’s Unlimited plan allows 7GB per line more of regular-speed data use each month (22GB vs. 15GB). If you expect you’ll always use less than 15GB of data per line, you may still want to consider Fi’s Flexible plan. Since the flexible plan has caps on data charges, Fi’s Flexible plan will rarely be much more expensive than Fi’s Unlimited plan:

Number of LinesTotal Cost (Unlimited plan)Max Cost (Flexible plan)Difference
1$70$80$10
2$120$135$15
3$150$170$20
4$180$205$25
5$225$240$15
6$270$275$5
If you expect to use under 15GB per line and occasionally (but not always) have data use that exceeds the break-even point, Fi’s Flexible plan is likely the best option.


You can view the math behind the tables in this post here.

Representation of the concept of a limit

Google Fi’s Unlimited Plan Has Limits

Last month, I published a blog post titled Unlimited Plans At 2G Speeds Are Bogus. I argued that wireless carriers that throttle data speeds to 128Kbps after a threshold amount of data use shouldn’t call their plans “unlimited.” Doing things on the internet at 128Kbps is often frustrating or impossible. Beyond that, imposing a maximum speed implicitly limits the amount of data a subscriber can use in a month.

In a follow-up post, I was critical of Atlice Mobile for labeling a plan as “unlimited” while imposing a bunch of limits that it did not clearly disclose. Google Fi seems to be following in Altice Mobile’s footsteps. Today, Fi Launched a new “unlimited” plan. Subscribers on this plan only get to use 22GB of data at regular speeds:[1]

If you use more than 15 GB of data in a cycle on the Fi Flexible plan or more than 22 GB in a cycle on the Fi Unlimited plan (less than 1% of individual Fi users as of Jan. 2018), you’ll experience slower speeds (256 kbps) above those respective data thresholds until your next billing cycle begins.
While I expect Fi is accurately reporting that less than 1% of users as of January 2018 exceeded 22GB of use, the statement might mislead people. Until now, Fi didn’t try to entice heavy data users with an option it labeled as an unlimited plan.[2]

256Kbps is slow

Data at 256Kbps will be more usable than data at 128Kbps, but many online activities will still be impractical. I don’t think continuous video streaming will work even at fairly low resolutions. Many web pages will load extremely slowly. As mentioned earlier, imposing a max speed of 256Kbps does limit the maximum data subscribers can use. Even if a subscriber manages to transfer a full 256 kilobits every single second after using 22GB of regular data, she’ll still have a theoretical limit of about 100GB of data use each month.[3]

Market pressures

While I haven’t always been a fan of Google Fi’s prices, I have thought of Google Fi as being a company that’s offering wireless service in an unusually transparent and consumer-friendly manner. I’m sad to see Google Fi caving to marketing pressures. That said, I realize the pressures are real. So let me make something clear: most people are not heavy data users; most people do not need unlimited plans. If enough consumers recognize that, there will be less pressure for companies to offer silly, not-really-unlimited plans.

Avoid Mismatched Phone Plans

There are probably millions of people in the U.S. that could save a lot of money by switching to a different plan offered by their existing cell phone carrier. For example, plenty of people pay for expensive plans with unlimited data, even though they only use a few gigabytes of data each month.

Recently, I angered a lot of people when I said Google Fi is generally too expensive for me to recommend the service. Several commenters argued I was wrong. Some of the commenters were polite. Others called me an idiot. Commenters often mentioned how much they used to pay for service from a major carrier and how much they saved by switching to Google Fi.

In many cases, commenters appeared to have purchased the wrong plans when they used major carriers. They were paying for data they didn’t need. Since Google Fi has a pay-for-what-you-use pricing structure, Fi subscribers basically cannot be on a plan that is mismatched with their data use.

Unsurprisingly, a person who barely uses data can probably get a better rate on a Google Fi plan than she can get on a high-data plan from Verizon. But Verizon also offers plans with small data allotments. We should make apples-to-apples comparisons when we can.

Examples

Below, I share excerpts from previous comments and my follow-up thoughts.


My wireless bill with Fi is $100 cheaper than it was with two phones on Verizon’s cheapest plan…a plan that includes more than 1gb per a phone is costly and unnecessary.
$100 cheaper!? I don’t think this commenter could have been on Verizon’s cheapest plan. Today, two lines of Verizon prepaid with 6 GB of data on each line (way more than the commenter desires) would cost only a bit more than $60 per month.


Google Fi unlimited calls and texts only costs $20 a month and when you add that to their pay-for-what-you-use data your monthly cost could be around mine at roughly $28/month, as I barely use any data…Now compare that with Verizon’s bare minimum unlimited plan starting at $70 before taxes and fees…Fi allows us to escape the tyranny of major cellular corporations and their overpriced plan structures.[1]
No! It’s inappropriate to compare the cost of service with barely any data use to the cost of an unlimited data plan.


Our monthly bill for all 3 lines with Verizon was around $180. It was reduced to less than $70 after switching to FI for the last 5 months.
Under $70 for three lines is a pretty good deal! No need to switch away from Fi, but let’s consider what comparable service would cost today with Verizon. With three Fi lines and a total cost under $70 per month, total data use is probably under 2GB per month.[2] A postpaid, Verizon plan with 3 lines and 2GB of shared data is about $100 per month right now. Prepaid options could come out under $100 per month.


My bill with Verizon was always $105 a month for two gigs of Internet.
One of Verizon’s prepaid options right now offers three times that amount of data for about a third of the price!


Carriers create confusion

People who are on mismatched plans aren’t idiots. Many carriers like it went customers pay extra money for unnecessary amounts of data. Instead of alerting subscribers who are paying for too much data, carriers often take steps to encourage customers to over-purchase data. I call the cell phone industry a confusopoly for a reason.

Finding plans that fit

As mentioned earlier, one way to ensure that you’re not paying for data you don’t need is to choose a carrier with a pay-for-what-you-use model (e.g., Ting or Google Fi). That said, I think most people can find better prices with carriers that use conventional pricing structures.

If you know how much data you typically use (or have records of data use you can look back on), you can probably figure out how much data you’d like your cell phone plan to offer. If you’re unsure about your data use, I suggest starting small. Choose a plan with the smallest amount of data that you think might be adequate. Experiment with that plan for a few months. Add more data if the initial data allotment you started with turns out to be insufficient.

Image representing the idea of paths diverging

Cheaper Alternatives To Google Fi

My last post about Google Fi has been getting a lot of traffic. Two sentences from the post provoked a lot of disagreement:

Despite all Fi’s great aspects, I don’t usually recommend it. For most users, it’s just too expensive.

I’m going to double down on that statement, but I want to clarify a few points. I’m not saying no one should use Fi. I’m also not saying Google Fi is one of the worst possible options for most people. A lot of comments disagreeing with me stated a version of the following:

What a dumb post! My wife and I were on T-Mobile paying $150 per month. We switched to Fi. Now we only pay $90 per month!
When I say that Fi is too expensive to recommend it to most people, I don’t mean that no one could save money by switching to Fi. Instead, I mean that most people who could save money switching to Google Fi could save even more money switching to another carrier.

Who should use Fi?

Before diving into alternatives to Google Fi, I want to make it clear that Fi may be a good match for some cell phone users. For example:

  • Extremely light data users who value reliability
  • Frequent international travelers who value the convenience of Fi’s roaming policies
  • People who want to take advantage of Fi’s free data-only SIMs on several low-use devices

Alternatives to Google Fi

The best alternative to Google Fi will depend on a number of factors. For example:

  • Is service being purchased for a single line or multiple lines?
  • How much data will be used each month?
  • How does the subscriber want to make trade-offs between the cost of cell service and the service’s performance?

Below I’ll run through a couple of my preferred alternatives to Google Fi.


As a heads up, I’m affiliated with most of these carriers. If you click a link on my website then purchase service from a carrier I’m affiliated with, I’ll likely get a commission. If you’d prefer I don’t receive a commission, just navigate directly to the carriers’ websites. Details about arrangements I have with carriers can be found on my transparency page. Prices I mention below generally do not include taxes and fees. Headings below link to each carrier’s website.


Tello


Tello offers rock-bottom prices for service over Sprint’s network. Prices are especially good on plans with limited data allotments. For example, $10 per month buys a plan with unlimited texts, unlimited minutes, and 1GB of data.

The downside of Tello is that it runs over Sprint’s network, which has less-extensive coverage than the other nationwide wireless networks.

Mint Mobile


Mint Mobile offers excellent prices for plans with decent data allotments and service over T-Mobile’s network. A plan with unlimited minutes, unlimited talk, and 8GB of data is only $20 per month.

T-Mobile’s network has a more extensive coverage profile than Sprint’s network, but nationwide coverage will still be inferior to service with AT&T, Google Fi (with a Fi-enabled device)[1], or Verizon.

Verizon Prepaid


Verizon’s prepaid plans will generally be more expensive than Tello’s plans or Mint Mobile’s plans. However, Verizon’s network offers more extensive nationwide coverage. Verizon has several different plan options with different data allotments. As one example, a single-line plan with unlimited minutes, unlimited texts, and 16GB of data is available for $45 per month.[2]

Total Wireless

Total Wireless Logo


Total Wireless operates over Verizon’s extensive network and has especially good prices on family plans with large allotments of shared data. For example, a plan with four lines, unlimited minutes, unlimited texts, and 100GB of shared data is available for $100 per month ($95 per month with automatic payments).

US Mobile


As I mentioned earlier, Google Fi might be a good option for those who don’t use their phone much. However, it’s not the only good option. US Mobile offers service over Verizon’s extensive network at great prices for plans with limited resource allotments.[3] US Mobile has a highly-customizable plan structure that allows customers to pick and choose the allotments of minutes, texts, and data that they’d like.

Did Google Fi Shoot Itself In The Foot?

Google Fi has a lot going for it: amazing international roaming options, fancy network-switching technology, and a simple pricing structure. Despite all Fi’s great aspects, I don’t usually recommend it. For most users, it’s just too expensive. Google Fi typically charges $10 per gigabyte of data. A lot of other carriers offer plans with far lower rates for data.

All Fi subscribers have roughly the same plan with the same pricing structure.[1] There aren’t ten different plans with different names and policies. This is in sharp contrast with Verizon. Looking at just unlimited plans, Verizon has several options:

  1. Start Unlimited
  2. Play More Unlimited
  3. Do More Unlimited
  4. Get More Unlimited

In fact, Verizon actually has a fifth unlimited plan it offers as a prepaid option. Each unlimited plan is a bit different. Some of the plans have more limits than others—inviting critics to joke about how Verizon doesn’t understand the meaning of the word “unlimited.”

While it feels silly, there are a handful of reasons why it makes business sense for Verizon to have several unlimited plans. Today, I’ll only touch on one of those reasons: when a carrier has multiple plans, it’s easier to introduce new prices and policies without immediately affecting existing customers. We just saw Verizon do this. A month ago, Verizon was offering three postpaid, unlimited plans. They were different from today’s plans:

  • GoUnlimited
  • BeyondUnlimited
  • AboveUnlimited

When Verizon introduces new plans, it can cease offering old plans to new customers while offering existing customers the same service on legacy plans. Since there are several plans that all have different policies, it’s difficult for people to make simple, apples-to-apples comparisons between legacy plans and plans available to new customers.

Back to Fi. Google Fi has been charging almost everyone $10 per gigabyte for a long time.[2] Years ago, that was a decent price for data. Today it’s not. Data costs have gone down in most of the industry.

I don’t have any inside knowledge about Fi, but I’m suspicious Fi’s simple pricing structure makes it hard for the company to change its prices. If Fi wanted to offer new customers data for $5 per gigabyte, existing Google Fi subscribers would want that deal too. If existing subscribers had to continue paying $10 per gigabyte, they’d get angry. If Fi reduced prices for existing subscribers, Fi’s revenue would plummet.


Added after publication: The idea I share in this post probably doesn’t explain why Fi charges so much for data (or at least, it is probably an incomplete explanation). There are a lot of other plausible explanations. E.g., Fi’s agreements with network operators may not lead to Fi getting good rates on data.

Added even later: When I said I don’t usually recommend Google Fi, I didn’t mean to imply that Fi’s prices are uniquely awful or that no one should use Fi. Rather, I don’t typically recommend Google Fi since most consumers can find comparable service at a lower price (see carriers I recommend).

Is Google Fi Worth It?

Google Fi uses an admirably simple pricing structure. A base rate of $20 per month offers subscribers unlimited talk and text. Beyond that, users are charged $10 per gigabyte of data. Single-line plans are capped at a monthly charge of $80, so subscribers that use 6GB of data will pay the same monthly price as subscribers that use 10GB of data.[1] While I like the simplicity of the pricing structure, plans end up being fairly expensive. It’s my impression that Google Fi has had its current pricing structure in place for several years despite the cost per byte of data dropping in the industry at large.

Fi-enabled devices have technology that allows them to switch between T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular, and Sprint’s networks. While the technology is cool, I’m not sure I’d choose seamless switching between three networks with mediocre coverage over exclusive access to Verizon’s more reliable network.[2]

Fi now officially supports devices that are not Fi-enabled. When these devices are used with Fi, they’ll only have access to T-Mobile’s network. Many mobile virtual network operators use T-Mobile’s network and offer far better prices than Fi. For example, Mint Mobile’s plans blow Fi’s prices out of the water.[3] Even with a Fi-enabled device, I think most people can find a better deal. A light user would pay $30 per month before taxes and fees for texts, talk, and 1GB of data on Fi’s network. You could get the same unlimited texting, unlimited talk, and 1GB of data with Verizon’s prepaid service for $30.[4] RedPocket can offer those resources on any of the major networks for $19 per month.[5]

For heavy data users, the case against Fi is even clearer. Using 6+ gigabytes of data brings the Fi monthly bill to $80 before taxes and fees. At that cost, I expect you could purchase an unlimited, postpaid plan with any of the Big Four carriers.

Despite my negativity, I’m still a huge fan of Fi’s simplicity and remarkable international roaming policies. Hopeful Fi will revamp its prices in the near future to become more competitive with the other options on the market.