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.

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).

Reflections on Ting’s 20 for 20 Deal

The mobile virtual network operator Ting is offering new subscribers unlimited talk, unlimited texts, and 20GB of data for only $20 per month. Customers who take advantage of the deal will receive promotional pricing though the end of the year. Once 2020 starts, customers will have to pay Ting’s usual rates.

It’s unusual

Introductory offers are common in the wireless industry, but Ting’s 20 for 20 deal is unusual. Users aren’t locked into any service at regular rates. Customers are permitted to take advantage of the deal for several months and end service before 2020. When other companies offer deals with similar structures, I often assume gimmicks will be involved. Companies may not remind customers that rates will increase, or cancellation processes may be unnecessarily complicated. I think Ting is planning to run its promotion with integrity. Below is an excerpt from a Reddit comment by a Ting employee (emphasis mine):

When they’re onboard, they get to kick the tires of Ting CS and our website at a reduced rate. At some point in the future, the promo will expire (currently through 2019) and they’ll be set to go back to regular Ting rates after more than enough advance email notice.
Given my excellent past experience with Ting’s support, I’m inclined to believe the company will follow through and communicate clearly with customers.

Data rates

20GB is a lot of data. The amount is especially surprising when considering Ting’s regular data rate at the moment is $10 per GB (and sometimes higher). Someone on the 20 for 20 plan who used the full data allotment would have to pay over $200 per month for a single line of service with Ting’s regular rates. I can’t imagine many people who use data that heavily will be interested in sticking with Ting after the promotional pricing ends.

Ting is probably banking on the expectation that many subscribers that join during the promotion won’t use anywhere near 20GB of data. That of course begs the question of why Ting didn’t just run a similar promotion with a smaller allotment of monthly data. I’m not sure what Ting’s rationale is, but I’m betting that Ting believes customers who don’t use a lot of data may still be attracted by the 20GB data allotment. A similar phenomenon occurs in the web hosting industry. Lots of consumers want to purchase hosting from companies that allegedly offer unlimited resources even though most websites have modest hosting requirements.

Networks and price structures

Ting offers service on both T-Mobile and Sprint’s networks, but the 20 for 20 offer is only available on the Sprint network. The network restriction could be related to Ting’s plan to transition away from offering service on T-Mobile’s network and begin offering service on Verizon’s network. However, apart from the planned transition, I think the promotion would likely not be cost-effective if offered over T-Mobile’s network. I’ve previously seen hints suggesting Ting has far better rates negotiated with Sprint than T-Mobile. The structure of the 20 for 20 promotion seems to further support that impression.

If Ting does get far better rates with Sprint, it leaves me wondering why Ting doesn’t offer Sprint-based service at better rates than service over other networks. My best bet is that having only one pricing structure keeps things simple for Ting’s customers, but there are other plausible explanations. Maybe a commitment to a single pricing structure gives Ting leverage in negotiations with network operators. Who knows?

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.