Google's Project Fi: The Beginning of a Revolution

May 6, 2015

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Project Fi is a new virtual cellular network by Google that connects users to the internet for a low monthly fee by aggregating Sprint, T-Mobile, and Wi-Fi networks. With the introduction of Project Fi, Google now has a presence in almost every part of the mobile value chain. Google provides the content and services which customers consume, the apps that display that content, the marketplace that distributes the apps, the operating system that runs the apps, the phones that run the operating system, and the network that connects the phones to the Internet. Many non-Google websites run on Google App Engine or deliver their traffic via Google infrastructure. Although Google's vertical integration along the signal chain may make some uneasy, it presents Google a unique opportunity to provide better experiences for its users.

Project Fi appears built from the ground up to handle handoff (the process of temporarily connecting to two networks when switching between them to avoid loss of data) between any two networks, weather they be Sprint to T-Mobile, T-Mobile to Wi-Fi, or Wi-Fi to Sprint. In addition, Project Fi supports VPN tunneling (encrypting and routing all data through a trusted remote computer) on untrusted connections to protect user privacy. These features are only possible because Google has a presence throughout the signal chain.

Project Fi extends beyond smartphones and beyond cellular towers: it is a platform that may eventually grow to allow any device to connect to the internet through any variety of technologies. Google's Project Loon may be used to provide access in areas where traditional service providers have spotty connections. Open Wi-Fi hotspots generated by Google Fiber modem/routers could improve capacity in densely populated areas, and deals with incumbent cable companies could provide similar benefits in cities where Google Fiber is not available. Most importantly, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi mesh networks may substantially increase coverage and enable load balancing between mobile networks. Google's control of the Android operating system could allow them to leapfrog the adoption rate problems faced by OpenGarden by integrating mesh networking protocols directly into the operating system. Google could protect users' privacy even as their data passes through a stranger's phone by tunneling all data through its VPN. Google's existing deals with service providers around the world may allow Project Fi to quickly scale to become a global network (pending government approval to allow Google to distribute local phone numbers).

Project Fi may expand to include more than just smartphones: Tablets, laptops, smart-watches, Chromecasts, and other electronic devices may rely on Project Fi to connect them to the Internet through whatever antennas they have available (cellular, Wi-Fi, or Bluetooth). Notification-forwarding services designed for Android Wear could be adapted to allow users to view and respond to any smartphone notification from any device, even if they leave their phone at home, and these devices can be always connected through a massive Project Fi mesh network.

Project Fi is likely to become a big part of Google's future. It helps Google diversify its business, which currently relies on advertisements for almost 90% of its revenue. Project Fi also grants Google greater control of users' smartphones, not only because Google provides the phone's connectivity, but also because Google can circumvent the bloatware and testing delays imposed on Android phones by wireless carriers. Project Fi may also become a key selling point of Android phones, that will gain more advanced features, improved coverage, and faster download speeds (usually at a lower monthly cost) than iPhones, which will likely be unable to connect to the service because of technical limitations imposed by Apple. Project Fi is here to stay, and it's just getting started.