Project Fi just celebrated its first birthday, but it was conceived more than three years ago, on Boxing Day 2012.
At the time, Nick Fox was looking for something new after 10 years spent working on search ads—the economic engine that drives the entire Google empire. His boss, Susan Wojcicki, suggested he talk to Andy Rubin, who led the creation of Android and still oversaw what had become the world’s most popular mobile operating system. The two of them first spoke on Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, and Rubin said he needed someone to tackle an idea bouncing around his head. He wanted to rethink how phones use wireless networks, much as Google had already rethought the mobile OS. “The idea was, ‘How can we drive some innovation in connectivity?’” Fox remembers.
Connectivity has become like water. It has become so essential to what we do.
Fox loved the idea, in large part because of the role connectivity, as he calls it, plays in modern life. “It has become like water,” he says. “It has become so essential to what we do.” He and Rubin, who has since left Google, discussed the possibility of making calls over W-iFi networks, but they didn’t have much of a roadmap beyond that. And Fox liked it that way. He believes the best way to drive innovation is to sic a bunch of smart people on a problem and give them the time and resources they need to explore it. With Rubin’s blessing, he did exactly that.
The result is Project Fi, a new kind of wireless service Google unveiled in April 2015. With it, phones can not only make calls over Wi-Fi networks, but seamlessly and automatically move those calls onto a cellular networks when the Wi-Fi signal fades. Perhaps more importantly, Project Fi also lets phones move between cellular networks, depending on which one offers the best signal. If the signal from Sprint peters out, your phone can instantly and automatically switch to T-Mobile.
A New Wireless Order
The service highlights a broader shift underway in the world of wireless connectivity, one that allows phones and tablets more easily move between disparate networks. Apple offers a tool on its iPad tablets that lets you test services from multiple carriers before choosing one. And apparently, Microsoft is exploring something similar. The two companies haven’t gone quite as far as Google, but the three companies are leading the way to a world where mobile devices use whatever network makes the most sense at any given moment.
“It may be the case in San Francisco that one cellular network is the best network,” Fox says. “But if I move into a rural area, maybe I should be on a different network there. We want to enable that. That’s a better user experience.”
That won’t be the norm anytime soon. Project Fi is available only on the latest Nexus phones, Google’s flagship Android devices. “No one else has come close to this, especially with a user device,” says Richard Doherty, director of the technology consulting firm Envisioneering. But Fox hopes to push other manufacturers toward similar goals. That’s the basic aim behind the Nexus family. Google slips its newest ideas and techniques into its flagship phone to spur other manufacturers to similar heights.
“These are ideas we want to push and explore and see what sticks. Some of these ideas might be wrong. Some of them might be right,” Fox says of Project Fi. “As appropriate, you move things into the ecosystem more broadly.” A prime example is the system Fox and crew use to move phone calls from Wi-Fi networks to cell networks.
A Phone Call With Yourself
Interestingly enough, this system is based on Hangouts, Google’s video conferencing service. With a Hangout, you can connect to several people simultaneously over the ‘net, chatting via video and, of course, audio. When you place a call over Wi-Fi via Project Fi, Google sets it up as a Hangout—only without the video. If you leave Wi-Fi, the Hangout keeps running, and then, because Hangout can juggle multiple connections, your phone can establish a new link over a cellular network.
It’s kinda like you’re two people dialing into the same Hangout.
It’s kinda like you’re two people dialing into the same Hangout. “The Hangout doesn’t necessarily need to know that you have left Wi-Fi,” Fox says. “That’s what’s nice about a Hangout that can have multiple participants.” When you move from Wi-Fi to cellular, you can hear the change as it happens, largely because call quality is better on Wi-Fi due to its greater network bandwidth.
But this setup is hardly unique to Google. Hangouts uses an underlying technology called WebRTC, which is open source, meaning anyone can freely use and modify the code. Google has shown how Wi-Fi-meets-cellular calls can work. And now others can duplicate it.
That’s not to say that Google is doing something no one else has ever contemplated. T-Mobile and others offer a similar form of Wi-fi calling. But Fox’s team, in typical Android fashion, hopes to accelerate the evolution of the wider market. Doherty says this effort doesn’t have a short runway, but he does believe it has the potential to “free up” the way we use mobile phones.
When the Wireless World Revolves Around You
Wi-Fi calling is only part of this movement. Project Fi also maintains a database of secure, reliable Wi-Fi networks, and if you come in range of one of these networks, it will automatically log you in, letting you benefit from the added bandwidth of Wi-Fi. Then there’s Fi’s knack for boosting your signal by moving between cellular networks, which can truly change how cellular works.
We’re gradually moving towards a world where you are the center of the wireless universe
Yes, today’s cellular networks let you “roam” onto other networks, but they very much control the terms, and they don’t necessarily let you move in a favor of a faster signal. Roaming can be expensive. Meanwhile, Project Fi charges a flat fee for its entire service. At the moment, it works only with T-Mobile and Sprint, and in order to extend it further, Google must establish partnerships with the other big carriers: AT&T and Verizon. But this first step is undoubtedly a sign of things to come.
With the power of Apple and Google ascending—and second-tier carriers like Sprint and T-Mobile embracing new ideas to compete with AT&T and Verizon—the day is coming when you, not the carriers, rule the wireless universe. In the past, each carrier kept you on its phones and its network. Now, Project Fi lets you automatically switch between T-Mobile and Sprint, and market forces inevitably will push this type of thing even further.
The Google Way
Fox stresses that Google isn’t interested in pushing big-name carriers aside. “We’re very explicitly not trying to commoditize cellular networks. That’s a race to the bottom for cellar networks, and it’s a bad thing,” he says. “The technology will only move forward if there is a strong business model behind it, if there is an environment where it makes sense for investments in 5G, et cetera, down the road.”
He also insists that Google also has no intention of becoming a “large scale” carrier and only wants to push the broader market forward. This is probably true. But it’s worth remembering that Google said the same thing about Google Fiber, its ultra-highspeed wireline Internet service, and it’s now a fairly big player in that game. The company will do whatever it takes to move markets. And this one needs moving. Again.