In my recent article on self-flying planes, I mentioned my recent travel schedule. 2016 was a big year. Around 150,000 miles (237,000km), or two weeks actual flight time. Using the XKCD "Is It Worth The Time" rules, this means I've got a lot of time to optimize my travel. One major area has been my phone and Internet access.
The US still has area codes for wireless services. My cell "mobile" is a San Francisco 415 area code1. Despite that anachronism, my phone works the same in Seattle or Atlanta. Then you cross an international border that mobility changes. On my old AT&T service, the default roaming rate was $2 per megabyte2.
The usual solution is to buy local SIM cards. I've got a bag full of dead ones. Switching card and number is both a hassle and expense. After some research, I finally landed on Google's cell service, called Project Fi.
In a nutshell:
- T-Mobile and Sprint deliver the US service. The idea is device will connect to the strongest network available.
- You need an unlocked Pixel, Nexus 6P or Nexus 5X phone to activate the service. I bought a Pixel from Fi directly.
- The cell service is $20/month. Data is $10/Gb.
- Up to 10 additional (data) SIM cards are free, and they come off the same $10/gig plan.
- (Free) WiFi calls and texts. This means you can text on WiFi from a plane.
- International rates are competitive. Enough that I'll make and take shorter calls without thinking about it.
- Full-Speed Data is $10/Gb almost everywhere in the world3.
The last point is the killer feature for travel. I've used my Pixel Fi on an LTE service in the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Germany, Italy, Peru and Spain. Each time, I've arrived, turned my phone on, connected to LTE, and worked as usual.
If you compare it to some domestic US plans, Project Fi can come off looking expensive. But compared to a bag of dead SIM cards it's a steal. It's not only the cost in your destination. When I was overseas, I was paying for a cell service in the US that I wasn't using. When I was on the road, I was paying double. Plus that odd month where I only used 2Gb, I was only billed $40.
What's the coverage?
Being based in San Francisco, I got good coverage on AT&T. I don't feel the Fi-based coverage is as good, but it's a slim margin.
When you travel, the coverage is excellent. Often there are many local providers for Fi. For example, in Australia, I connected to Telstra, which has outstanding range.
What about the iPhone and iOS in general?
I've had success using the extra data SIMs with an iOS device. I have an iPhone for development and testing. This iPhone works fine with a Project Fi data SIM in it4.
There are some caveats. Your iOS device will need to be unlocked, plus you'll need to set the APN to h2g2 when roaming.
In my testing, it's possible to activate on a Pixel/Nexus device and then transfer the primary SIM to an iPhone. But, you'll be missing some important features; T-Mobile/Sprint network switching, MMS and Visual Voicemail. I'm happy with the Pixel, so I prefer to keep it simple and have that as my primary device.
The data SIMs are very useful. I have numerous devices for testing, plus a tablet. With zero extra cost, they're now all connected.
Project Fi currently doesn't support eSIM devices. So that rules out the Apple Watch 3. Although worth noting that a many other Apple SIM devices have both an eSIM and a regular nano-sim slot. There is usually good discussion on compatability on the Project Fi Forums.
Who is it for?
It'd be tough to recommend Project Fi if you're based in North America most of the time. Especially if you spend most of your day on WiFi, or if you're wedded to an iPhone experience.
Thankfully, competition in this space is increasing. T-Mobile offers free 2G roaming. AT&T now offers "Day Passes" for $10/day. For my case, neither come close to Project Fi, but it's good to finally see competition on International Plans.