Return of The Android (Project Fi Edition)

If you’ve been following my conversion from iOS to Android, you may have picked up that it’s been a bumpy road. My wife and I have been on AT&T forever. We had a pretty good system going for a while. Every year, we would renew one of our Unlimited lines and I would get the new iPhone. My wife would get the one year old iPhone and everything was great. We never worried about data caps, never wondered if we’d go over or not. We used iMessage exclusively to message family and paid the odd $2-$3 per month for misc. text messages to non-iOS users when needed. And then my wife’s phone was stolen and the alternating year schedule went out the window. More people were sending more SMS and MMS messages to me at work and AT&T kept hinting that they would be doing away with the Unlimited plan eventually. I also was missing out on tethering, which would have come in handy a few times but was unavailable to me as an Unlimited data plan holder.

So, enter the Nexus 5X, the Nexus 6P and a growing frustration with using Google Apps on iOS. It was time for a change in more ways than one. Rather than go the subsidized iPhone route and renew our AT&T unlimited plans for another 2 years (an option that looks to be going away as of Jan 8th), I decided we would make the switch to Android. Thankfully my wife was up for the adventure. One of the benefits of the decision was the freedom of having unlocked phones. The cost of both Nexus Android phones was about the same as if we had paid the subsidized cost for two iPhones plus the $45 “upgrade” fee. Not being locked to a carrier gave us options. Maybe too many options. Having been on AT&T my entire iPhone life, the thought of giving up my AT&T unlimited data plan was more traumatic than abandoning iOS in favor of Android.

I did the research. We use a lot of data. The blue spikes on the left are my wife’s iPhone 5. Since there is no way she was using more data than me, she obviously had that wifi problem that caused her to use LTE while connected to Wifi. For a while, her iPhone wouldn’t even connect to Wifi. We didn’t think much of it at the time, being on the unlimited plan and all (she hit 11GB one month!). Figuring Aug-Nov represented a more typical data usage pattern, I did some quick back of the napkin calculations and figured we’d be ok if we switched from our unlimited plans to a metered data plan.

Data Usage

I looked at plan options. T-Mobile has decent plans and coverage looks like it should be good here in San Jose. I discounted Sprint and Verizon. Sprint because I had a 4G hokey puck that didn’t work very well at home and Verizon because then I might as well just stay with AT&T. Actually, staying with AT&T was an option too. In fact, it’s my fall back option if this thing goes sideways. The AT&T 15GB family plan looks like it would work for us. Averaging out my data usage over the past year, I used an average of 2.6GB per month. I heard the promise of Project Fi calling to me through the Nexus Android phones.

Project Fi is google’s beta entry into Cell phone service. They are basically riding on top of T-Mobile and Sprint. In an interesting twist, they use both services and supposedly (although from forum posts, not really) are supposed to switch between networks based on which has the best signal. Project Fi is also supposed to heavily rely on “Open” Wifi hotspots. I’m not really sure how that’s supposed to work, given that most open wifi around here still requires a click through or OK on a splash page to access the net, which Project Fi doesn’t consider “Open”. Regardless, the pricing is attractive. A month to month (cancel anytime) $20 flat fee for Voice and Texting and $10 per month per Gig of data. I figure with my monthly average, I should come out ahead on Data costs over a year. Theoretically.

My SIM arrived and I’ve been on Project Fi for a few days. Activation was straight forward. My AT&T number ported over the same day and apparently automatically cancelled my account. I must say it’s a nerve racking experience moving over to a metered data plan. I’ve been constantly checking my data usage, watching it creep up each day and consciously not streaming Songza in the car. The Project Fi app and web site are clean and provide a great summary of usage. Too good. I’ve got my eye on that Data graph.

Google Fi

My 6P started off on Project Fi at home with a weak LTE signal (and speed) and I immediately wondered if I was on Sprint or T-Mobile. I read about some similar issues and found the Signal Spy app which allowed me to see what network I was connected to and better yet manually switch networks. I forced the phone to GSM which put me on T-Mobile with full LTE and 30Mb downloads. Yay. Three hours later it was back on Sprint. I read something about the Project Fi app update and app caches. I ran the Repair command in Signal Spy (which apparently clears all that stuff out) and then we hit the road to Monterey.

On the road I watched Signal Spy as my phone connected to Sprint and then T-Mobile (it was almost exclusively on T-Mobile the entire trip). Auto switching was apparently working. One of my biggest concerns with Fi was the T-Mobile coverage. Back in the day, I was on Verizon, then switched to AT&T when Verizon’s move to digital killed their coverage in the rural central valley. I’ve been used to coverage just about everywhere since I can remember owning a cell phone. Now, even at the top of mountains and in the valleys of Yosemite. The jury is still out on Project Fi but for the quick trip down to Monterey, it wasn’t bad.

I did run into one oddity. While my wife was driving us home, I was uploading a photo post to twitter and the phone dropped all Data. It did the … searching for signal thing and then came up on T-Mobile. The Signal Spy log told me it was on Sprint before. My tweet died in transmission and I had to go back and re-compose and re-send it.

When I got home, I was once again on Sprint (but home wifi made that a moot point). I did open a support ticket with Project Fi via the app and received instructions for reseting Project Fi on the phone. Not something I wanted to do at the time because it involved resting my phone. So I left it for the night and when I woke up the next morning, the phone was on 4 glorious bars of T-Mobile LTE again.

My wife’s SIM is set to arrive on Tuesday. Then I’ll have two phones to compare service too. I wish they had a family plan, but the per Gig pricing seems ok for now. And they only bill for what’s used, which should keep my wife’s bill low. We’ll see how the metered data thing goes for me. I’ve set the data threshold alarms so I don’t accidentally go way over my plan on the first month.

I guess I’m back in experimenting mode, downloading apps (Signal Spy is a must), troubleshooting issues. Trying out different settings and configurations. All stuff I love to do.

Just not sure I really should be doing it with our primary phone service. I might need to actually fire up that Sonic.net home VoIP phone, just in case.

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