What you need to know about Google’s just-announced wireless service

A network only for Nexus 6 phones.
A network only for Nexus 6 phones.
Image: AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit
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Google today unveiled a new wireless service called Project Fi that offers phone plans beginning at $20 a month. Before you cancel your existing wireless contract, there are a few important things to know.

There’s only one compatible device

Google’s flagship phone, the Nexus 6, is the only device with the right hardware and software for Project Fi.

But you can use other devices if they support Hangouts

Users can link their Project Fi phone numbers to other devices that support Hangouts, such as computers, tablets, and smartphones. Incoming calls will ring these devices, and people can make outgoing calls through the Hangouts app from any of their linked devices.

Google’s not building its own wireless network

Project Fi is powered by three networks: open Wi-Fi hotspots, T-Mobile, and Sprint. The service will automatically choose between the strongest available connection based on the user’s location.

Data sent over Wi-Fi is encrypted

Since Project Fi uses publicly available wireless networks, it will send the data over a virtual private network to keep it from snooping eyes.

The pricing structure is fresh, but it’s not the cheapest

The base price for a plan is $20 a month, which includes talk, text, and Wi-Fi tethering (to use your smartphone as a hotspot) in more than 120 countries. You can move between countries, which is a very unusual perk for wireless plans. But in countries outside the US voice calls are $0.20 per minute via cell phone, while each gigabyte of data (for emailing, social media, streaming) is an additional $10, and users get a prorated credit for any unused data at the end of the billing cycle.

The pricing model is a major break from existing wireless contracts, but it’s not the cheapest available. Furthermore, the lack of an unlimited plan will be a turnoff for heavy consumers of data. Republic Wireless, which uses a combination of Sprint’s network and Wi-Fi, offers a plan with unlimited talk, text, and data for $40 a month.

Coverage can be spotty

Project Fi’s connection is a reflection of the networks it leverages (T-Mobile and Sprint). The coasts are well covered, but large swaths of middle America aren’t or only have access to Edge. If you live in Montana, for instance, better to look elsewhere. Check out the coverage map here.

It’s invite only

Request an invite here.