Google Fi gets always-on VPN and handset options

The service will soon be coming to more handsets (including iPhones), and you won't be left signal-less as you drive away from wifi.
28 November 2018

Google logo on smartphone screen. Source: Shutterstock

Participants in Google Fi (formerly Project Fi) should soon by experiencing smoother hand-offs between mobile and wi-fi networks, and can also use the service’s VPN for cellular connections, not just wi-fi hotspot connections – thus blanketing its users permanently in anonymity.

Additionally, the range of handsets able to participate in Fi will soon be expanding, with handsets by makers Samsung and OnePlus being welcomed into the fold. Apple’s iPhone users are also said to be included at some time on the near future, although that platform’s instance of Fi is still in beta testing phase.

Currently, access to Google Fi is limited to specific phone models: Google’s Pixel 3, 3 XL, 2 XL, the LG G7, and V35, and Motorola’s Moto G6, and X4 (the Android One edition).

For the uninitiated, Google Fi is an MVNO (mobile virtual network operator) that allows users access to a range of (US-only) mobile carriers’ services (T-Mobile, Sprint, and US Cellular) depending on signal availability and strength. Connections will shift between any of the three providers’ services in the background, ensuring the best possible connection. Additionally, phones will step seamlessly from mobile signals to wi-fi when access points become available.

When connected to work wi-fi, for example, data use is free, meaning that mobile charges only accrue when out of wi-fi zones. Users also get free access to over 2,000 free wi-fi access points across the US.

The service is priced at a flat rate of US$20 per month for unlimited calls and texts. Data usage comes at $10 per gigabyte, with free data from 6GB upwards. If the user consumes 15GB of data in a single month, the pipeline may be throttled down to 256kb/secs, however. The plan also offers a price cap service that means users can limit their expenditure. Unused portions of each paid-for gigabyte of data are credited to a user’s account each month’s end.

In recent weeks, Google has claimed it has improved the handover from wi-fi to cellular data, reducing the time without a working connection by up to 40%– the company quotes the example of the irritating dead zone experienced when driving away from a wi-fi point, before the mobile network’s data connection kicks in.

VPN blanket coverage is now available, labeled “Enhanced network”. Switching this feature on means all traffic between a cell and the internet (by whichever conduit) is anonymized and encrypted– thus effectively severing the user and their phone number or other clues to identity from the all-seeing internet.

The carrier-agnostic cell coverage of Project Fi means that domestic use in the US is pretty much comprehensive, although as with any mobile network’s coverage, 4G may drop to be replaced by 3G or 2G, or nada, depending on location.

Via the US carriers’ relationships with other carriers overseas (for instance, the Three network in Europe), Google Fi users can continue using the plan in over 170 countries. Data costs remain the same and calls on cellular network or wi-fi cost 20 cents per minute. Texts remain free overseas.

Google has not announced any plans to expand the Fi initiative outside the US. In Europe especially, the company would face stiff competition, especially in the MVNO market, where prices for calls and data are significantly lower for users than in the US.

Additionally, features like all-you-can-eat data are commonplace across the pond, making a €10-per-GB plan unattractive, on first reading.