It's a modern-day technological maxim, as true in the United States as it is in Canada: Few people leave their cellphone carrier because they've found one they like better; most make the move because they've found one that irks them a little less.
Such was the impetus for my recent search (just after passing the two-year mark of living in the United States and thus no longer being tied to an ironclad contract) for a new wireless network provider. After two years with Verizon, I went looking for a better deal with the likes of Sprint or AT&T.
Instead, I ended up signing with America's newest telecom player – Alphabet Inc.'s Google.
Quietly, Google is wading into the last segment of the smartphone industry in which it has yet to establish control – cellphone plans.
Earlier this year, the Internet giant launched a service called Project Fi, a smartphone talk, text and data provider. Although still in its infancy, Project Fi essentially positions Google to compete with the likes of Verizon and AT&T in the cellphone-contract business.
In an industry long loathed for its convoluted pricing schemes, Project Fi is fairly straightforward. There's only one choice of phone plan, an unlimited domestic talk-and-text option that runs $20 (U.S.) a month. In addition, data is always priced at $10 a gigabyte, and any data paid for but not used is refunded.
In the U.S., Google's system hops between the mobile networks of Sprint and T-Mobile, depending on which network is strongest at any given location, acting as an MVNO (mobile virtual network operator). It will also latch onto any available Wi-Fi network when it can, and use it for calls and texts.
Just as with disruptive Silicon Valley forces such as Uber, there's little doubt that much of Project Fi's appeal will be at least partly fuelled by widespread discontent with the industry's status quo. In the United States, major cellphone carriers regularly show up in myriad "most hated" companies lists – with users complaining about everything from pricey long-term contracts to bad customer service to spotty reception.
As such, perhaps unsurprisingly, almost every aspect of Project Fi is focused on those areas where customer satisfaction with traditional land line carriers runs highest. There exists, essentially, only one pricing plan – a decision to sacrifice variety for the sake of simplicity. The service allows users to access customer service through phone, e-mail or online chat (with the estimated waiting times available beforehand on the Project Fi website). And Google's promise to constantly hop from one network to another depending on which is fastest at any given time, while not always well-implemented in real-world conditions, at least offers the prospect of an innovative solution to customers' long-standing complaints about uneven cellphone coverage.
Almost every aspect of Project Fi involves almost no human interaction. There exists no physical storefront – everything is done on the service website. A few weeks after signing up, my SIM card arrived in the mail, as did the phone that uses it.
Only a few months old, Project Fi is still very much a work in progress, and suffers from all kinds of limitations. The most glaring one is variety of hardware. Currently, the service will only work with a handful of Google Nexus phones (the newest versions of which cost upwards of $500). The one-size-fits-all data plan is unlikely to satisfy heavy users, who will expect some sort of discount for buying more gigabytes, as they do with other cellphone providers. Exclusivity is also an annoyance; users still have to ask for an invite to sign up for Project Fi – a common approach in the tech world when companies want to keep a user base small in the initial phase of a wider rollout.
Beyond that, there's a somewhat more existential question: How long will traditional carriers go along with this arrangement? For now, Google is playing down Project Fi, trying to frame it as a joint experiment with its telecom partners to explore new ways of solving problems in the wireless space. Sprint and T-Mobile, smaller players in the sector, are the first to partner with Google on the project, likely in hopes that it will poach customers from their bigger rivals. But what if that experiment becomes a booming business? At what point will the carriers start demanding a lot more in return for letting Google piggyback on their networks?
Still, in an industry long-defined by steep prices and nigh-unbreakable contracts, Google's infant smartphone operation is alluring. After paying the upfront cost of two new Nexus phones, my wife and I signed up for a Project Fi plan that gives us about twice as much data as our Verizon plan – for less than half the price.
So far, Google is keeping its Project Fi expansion plans a secret. In theory, there's nothing stopping the company from trying to build a similar virtual network in Canada. In practice, however, it seems unlikely. Earlier this year, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission declined to force wireless carriers to sell access to their networks at regulated rates to companies that do not build their own wireless infrastructure. As it stands, Google may still try to work out a deal on commercial terms, but the major Canadian telecom players will have little incentive to make such an arrangement work.
Indeed, in the long run, many traditional carriers may decide they have less to gain and more to lose by helping Google's upstart network out.