Google goes all-in on MVNO

GoogleFi
Google is now calling its MVNO "Google Fi" instead of "Project Fi." (Google)

Google changed the name of its MVNO service from Project Fi to Google Fi and added a new bring-your-own-device option that will allow the service to work on most Android phones and iPhones.

However, Google’s new BYOD options include several caveats, most notably that such phones won’t seamlessly roam among the networks of T-Mobile, Sprint and U.S. Cellular.

Nonetheless, Google’s announcement essentially represents a doubling down by the company on its three-year-old MVNO service. That’s noteworthy considering Google has a mixed track record in the services it supports: The company has discontinued offerings like Google Wave, Buzz and Reader, and though it still supports its Google Voice service, it hasn’t put much emphasis on the service in years.

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The timing of Google’s new investment into its MVNO is also interesting considering a number of other major brands are entering the U.S. wireless industry through MVNOs. Cable giants Comcast and Charter are currently selling mobile services in their respective cable footprints via MVNO deals with Verizon, while cable company Altice plans to join the space next year through an MVNO deal with Sprint.

Meanwhile, T-Mobile is working to close its proposed acquisition of Sprint, a transaction that promises to eliminate one network option from the MVNO sector. Indeed, that merger could also eliminate one of the major elements of Google’s current MVNO proposition: that users can rely on not one wireless network but three.

When Google launched its Project Fi MVNO three years ago, a major selling point was that customers would be able to use whichever network was the best between Sprint and T-Mobile (Google subsequently added U.S. Cellular’s network to the mix). A merger between Sprint and T-Mobile would essentially make Google’s mobile service a relatively straightforward MVNO of T-Mobile, since U.S. Cellular’s network only covers a portion of the country.

Thus, Google’s announcement today that it will expand to more devices also signals its move away from its initial “network switching” selling point—where users are shuttled to the best cellular network available—and will instead focus on the simplicity and flexibility of its service plans. “If you’re looking for the full Google Fi experience, including Fi’s unique technology to seamlessly switch between multiple cellular networks, you can use a phone designed for Fi—like the Pixel 3, Moto G6, and any other phone available on the Google Fi website. These phones include special hardware and software to move effortlessly between Google Fi’s networks and provide you with even more security and reliability through Fi’s new enhanced network feature,” wrote Simon Arscott, director of Google’s MVNO, on the company’s blog.

For its MVNO, Google touts that users can pay $20 for a line of texting and talking, and then can pay $10 for every 1 GB of data they use, up to a max of $60 per month. Thus, customers essentially can pay $80 for unlimited data service (users’ connection speeds are slowed if they consume more than 15 GB in a month, though Google notes that less than 1% of its users typically consume more than 15 GB in a month).

Other features from the new Google Fi MVNO include free international roaming, access to 2 million secure Wi-Fi hotspots and data protection through a Google VPN.

In order to promote its new offering, Google said it would provide a $200 service credit to users who sign up for the service today.

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