Google’s inexpensive cellular service is finally available for the iPhone. This article shows you how to get started with Google Fi for the iPhone.
Table of Contents:
- What is Google Fi?
- A Brief History of Google Fi
- System Requirements for Google Fi
- Benefits of Google Fi
- Limitations of Google Fi
- Check Current Cellular Contract
- Create a Google Account
- Download the Google Fi App
- Buy Google Fi SIM at Best Buy
- Data Conservation Tips
- Google Fi Tips
- Google Fi Wish List
What is Google Fi?
Google Fi provides cellular service for smartphones and other devices. The service relies on third-party carriers to provide cellular access. Google doesn’t own or operate cell towers. Instead, they contract service from established providers — T-Mobile, Sprint and U.S. Cellular.
Service is robust and efficient, as the technology can seamlessly switch between networks based on the best available speeds. Google Fi also uses WiFi networks, when available. These advanced features only work with select phones — Pixels, Moto G6, LG G7 ThinQ, LG V35 ThinQ and the Android One Moto X4. All other devices connect to a single carrier, usually T-Mobile. The iPhone does not support these advanced cellular network switching features.
Strictly speaking, Google Fi is a mobile network virtual operator (MNVO). As mentioned, they don’t own or maintain any cell towers. Their network is virtual and provided by others. It is similar to how companies host their services in Amazon’s data center.
A Brief History of Google Fi
As an iPhone user, I tend to stick with the Apple ecosystem. My fascination with technology keeps me interested in other device makers. I’m not a fanboy. I don’t hate Google because I own an iPhone. I am well aware that Google loves the Macintosh.
Real technologists are not fan boys. We try to use the best technology for the appropriate purpose. I use many Google products and services on my Apple devices. Google Play Music is my preferred music subscription service. I watch YouTube all the time.
For a long time, I could only appreciate Google Fi from afar. I first heard of this service by its original name — Project Fi. Launched in April 2015, the service was available by invitation only. At this point, Project Fi only supported the Nexus 6 phone. As the service expanded, it was made available to the public in the spring of 2016, working only with Google Pixel phones. The service was rebranded as Google Fi in November 2018, adding support for the iPhone. I signed up for the service shortly thereafter.
Currently, Google Fi’s iPhone support is in beta. Having used it for a few months, I can honestly say that it’s quite stable.
System Requirements for Google Fi
Google Fi doesn’t work with every device. As it stands, the following devices are known to work with Google Fi:
- iPhone 5S (or later) running iOS 11 (or later)
- Pixel, Pixel XL (or later)
- Nexus 5x (or later)
- Moto G6
- Moto X4 (Android One version)
- LG V35 ThinQ
- LG G7 ThinQ
If you don’t see your device on the list, don’t worry. The Google Fi website offers a compatibility tool. Simply drill down into the phone manufacturer and model to check compatibility.
As previously mentioned, advanced network switching features only work on select phones. These include the following models: Pixels, Moto G6, LG G7 ThinQ, LG V35 ThinQ and the Android One Moto X4. Other phones can use Google Fi service, but they do not benefit from dynamic network switching. Google Fi still has many benefits for devices that don’t support network switching.
Google also offers some deals on new Fi-compatible devices. They do not, however, sell the iPhone.
Benefits of Google Fi
Google Fi helps cellular subscribers save money. If your cellular data usage varies month to month, Google Fi provides excellent savings.
The base fee for Google Fi is only $20 per month. This covers unlimited calls within the United States and domestic and international text messaging. Cellular (non-WiFi) calls to other countries costs extra.
Data is only $10 per GB, however, with Bill Protection, users are only charged for the first 6 GB. After that, data is free for the rest of the cycle, however, you will reach a data cap at 15 GB. After you surpass the cap, you can either suffer through 256 kbps data speeds, or opt in to buying more data.
Customers are billed accurately for data consumption. For example, if you only use 0.1 GB of data, you’re only charged $1. Your bill, for the month, would be about $21, with some additional fees and taxes. Google Fi is ridiculously inexpensive for those who don’t use a lot of data.
If you use a lot of data, there are better plans out there. Keep in mind, virtually all of the “unlimited” plans have data caps, after which your device is slowed. If you are regularly using more than 15 GB of data per month, Google Fi is not the best option. For those who barely use any data, or use variable amounts from month to month, Google Fi is one of the the best deals around.
If that’s not enough, they let you use the Personal Hotspot on your phone for free! I tried this out and it works on my iPhone 6. I actually use this as my home Internet connection, as I am in the process of moving. Sadly, this is the most reliable Internet service I have had in years. (This is a big reason why I am moving out of the San Francisco Bay Area.)
Verizon was my previous cellular provider. They charged me almost $80 a month for 6 GB of data. I was afraid to use data, because if I went over the limit, it would cost $20 per GB. They also charge $20 per month to use the Personal Hotspot feature. I was getting ripped off!
Google Fi works in 200+ countries without roaming fees, however, some additional charges apply. Data are still $10 per GB, however, cellular calls (non-WiFi) cost 20 cents per minute. For more details on Google Fi’s international service, please visit their website.
In theory, Google Fi is much more robust than any other cellular provider. They automatically switch some devices (Pixels, Moto G6, LG G7 ThinQ, LG V35 ThinQ and the Android One Moto X4) to the fastest cellular network. Although the speeds are sufficient, Verizon is faster. They also charge a fortune for service, while Google Fi is an exceptional deal. They might not beat Verizon when it comes to speed, but they probably beat most other carriers. The ability to switch between multiple networks, based on speed and availability is a huge advantage.
If that’s not enough, there are no contracts. You can drop Google Fi at any time.
Right now, there are tremendous deals going on with Google Fi. I have already received $200 in credit towards my bill. All I did was switch to Google Fi. They didn’t make me jump through any hoops to get the rewards. It’s the best experience I have ever had with a cellular service!
If you have a family or small business, Google Fi extends the savings even more. They allow up to 5 additional people on each account, for only $15 per person, per month.
Limitations of Google Fi
Google Fi is still in beta for the iPhone. The absence of WiFi calling is the most notable deficiency. Apparently, you can use the Google Hangouts app to make WiFi calls using your Google Fi number. As for the built-in WiFi calling that comes with iOS, however, you’ll have to wait. This is not a huge problem, as calls and texts are free. It will impact customers who don’t have access adequate cellular signals, such as those who work in large buildings.
iPhone users cannot use the Personal Hotspot feature outside of the United States. Additionally, visual voicemail is not supported. For some reason, it works on my iPhone. Perhaps that’s part of the beta?
As mentioned, the iPhone does not benefit from the advanced network switching capabilities of Google Fi. Basically, you’re getting T-Mobile service at a more flexible price, which still benefits most people.
Keep in mind, most of these limitations are due to the unfinished nature of Google Fi. It’s in beta right now. As the service becomes a legitimate, full-blown release, these absent features will work. That said, Apple will need to add hardware support to their devices for advanced Google Fi features. I wouldn’t hold my breath, but I think they may actually add support for Google Fi someday.
Check Current Cellular Contract
Before you even think about signing up for Google Fi, take a close look at your cellular contract. Many cellular providers entangle customers in multi-year obligations. If you wish to leave your provider, you may be subject to cancellation fees. These can often be exorbitant.
Typically, it doesn’t make sense to pay a cancellation fee to join another network. You’re better off staying with your current carrier until the contract period elapses. That said, Google Fi often provides generous credits toward your service. Although I didn’t have to pay any cancellation fees with Verizon, I got $200 in credit from Google Fi. This is a promotional offer. Make sure to check the Google Fi website for current promotions. Cancellation fees from your current cellular carrier may be mitigated by Google Fi promotions and equitable billing.
Create a Google Account
You need a Google account to start using Google Fi. If you already have one, skip ahead to the next section. If you need to create one, open a web browser and navigate to www.google.com. Google’s home page appears. Next, tap or click on Sign In on the top right corner. The Google Sign in Page appears. Click or tap on the “create account” link. From here, simply follow the directions on the website. Make sure to keep track of your email address and password. You will need them to create a Google Fi account.
Download the Google Fi App
The Google Fi app for iOS streamlines the process of signing up for cellular service. Simply launch the App Store, search for Google Fi and install the app. Once installed, tap on Open to launch the app.
The Google Fi app will guide you through the process of terminating service with your current provider and starting service with Google. You will need to visit your cellular provider’s website or contact customer support to allow Google Fi to transfer your cell number. This process takes time.
Additionally, Google Fi is so popular, there’s a backlog of customers. The Google Fi app provides information about how long the process takes. It took me a few weeks to get my Google Fi kit, which includes a SIM card and documentation. Google will keep you in the loop during the whole process.
Buy Google Fi SIM at Best Buy
Best Buy recently started selling Google Fi SIM cards at their brick and mortar stores. The cards cost $9.99, however, they come with a $10 credit for Google Fi service.
The overall flow for switching from one cellular provider to another is unclear. Obviously, if you want to keep your phone number, it must be transferred from your current cellular provider to Google Fi. This isn’t as simple as popping a SIM card into your phone, but it does eliminate much of the waiting. The Google Fi app will prompt you for information about your current cellular provider, making the switch much easier. Rest assured that the Google Fi SIM card comes with documentation and support for this transition.
Data Conservation Tips
Once you get Google Fi up and running, conserving data can be a critical endeavor. At $10 per GB, data are still expensive, however, there are some tricks that can save you both data and money.
If you consume content on your Google Fi device, make sure to download music and videos while on WiFi. You can watch them later, as downloads, without burning through cellular data. Videos and high-fidelity music will burn through data faster than anything. Simply surfing the web on your device is actually quite efficient. Just beware of sites that have too many embedded, auto-play videos.
Most streaming video providers, such as Netflix, allow users to adjust data consumption. Netflix offers the ability to throttle data at the profile level. This means if you have three Netflix profiles for one account, this setting can be made, individually, for all three profiles. For more information on adjusting Netflix video quality settings, please read “How to Adjust Netflix Video Quality on the iPhone, Mac and Apple TV”.
The Personal Hotspot comes in handy from time to time. I actually use it for my home Internet connection. Unfortunately, these WiFi hotspots can burn through a lot of data, without you even realizing it.
I connected my Apple TV to my Personal Hotspot and just used it to play downloaded music over AirPlay. A few hours later, I checked my Google Fi data usage report and, to my horror, found that I downloaded 3 GB of data that day. How could this be? I didn’t watch any streaming video that day!
Automatic app updates on Apple TV ended up consuming a massive amount of data. It’s very upsetting, because I don’t even use most of the tvOS apps I have installed. Many of them were installed just so I could write an article. Nonetheless, Apple TV gobbled up gigabytes of data with its automatic app updating feature. This setting is on by default, but I was aware of it and it’s my fault that I didn’t turn it off. Apple assumes that their TV device is connected to an unlimited WiFi network. It’s a fair assumption to make. Not everyone lives in an Internet desert, like much of the SF Bay Area has become.
Apple TV owners can turn off both automatic tvOS updates and app updates. Simply go to Settings > Apps > Automatically Update Apps and turn this feature off. You may also want to turn off Automatically Install Apps which will automatically install tvOS versions of iOS apps you install on your iPhone or iPad. Automatic system updates can be turned off by going to Settings > System > Software Updates > Automatically Update.
There are other hidden data hogs that can devour bandwidth if connected to your Personal Hotspot. Your iOS devices may be set for automatic operating system and app updates. These devices may also be refreshing app content in the background. If you happen to plug your device in and leave it on, iCloud backups could potentially use massive amounts of data. Here are the main iOS and macOS data hogs, and how to turn them off:
- iOS operating system updates — Settings > General > Software Update > Automatic Updates > Off
- iOS background app refresh — Settings > General > Background App Refresh > Off
- iOS iTunes automatic downloads — Settings > iTunes & App Store > turn off all automatic downloads, video autoplay and Offload Unused Apps
- iOS fetch new data — Settings > Passwords & Accounts > Fetch New Data > Push > Off
- iOS Photo Stream — Settings > Photos > My Photo Stream > Off
- iOS iCloud backups — Settings > [your Apple ID] > iCloud > iCloud Backup > Off
- macOS app updates — App Store > Preferences > Automatic Updates > Off
- macOS system updates — System Preferences > Software Update > Automatically keep my Mac up to date > Off > confirm
Regardless of settings, Apple may still sometimes download a system update automatically. This tends to happen when you charge your device. The simple solution is to just turn off your device after you attach the charging cable. This will also keep your device cool as it charges, extending battery lifespan.
If you turn off iCloud backups, make sure to turn them on once in a while. Regular backups are essential, but they can burn through a lot of data.
Google Fi Tips
Google Fi is pretty straightforward, however, there are a few tips and tricks that can make life easier.
First, I recommend checking the data usage reports regularly. This will prevent you from using too much data. It will also inform you when you are close to hitting the 15 GB data threshold. After this point, your cellular data speed will be slowed down to 256 kbps. This is very slow. You can’t even watch standard definition video at this speed. Simply downloading 100 MB takes an hour. It’s very slow!
There is some lag between actual data usage and when it registers in the reports. It doesn’t happen in real time. You can use this to your advantage by going on a download spree before your data speed is slowed. I recommend downloading as much content as possible once you go over 14 GB. Make sure you have a plan, because once you go over 15 GB, you only have a few hours before your speed slows down. I was able to download 9 GB of data at high speeds, over the 15 GB threshold, before I was slowed down. I took advantage of this opportunity to download 40 hours of video content. This provided much-needed entertainment during the remaining days of the billing cycle.
Make sure your pre-slowdown download spree is done at the right time. Being a cellular data network, data speeds tend to slow at peak hours. You don’t want to do a download spree at 7pm, when people are stressing the system.
If you are slowed, you can opt in to buying more data. Unfortunately, once you opt in, you can’t opt out again, at least until the billing cycle ends. If you opt in, you could end up with a shockingly expensive cellular bill. I recommend making do with the slow speeds.
You can actually stream video at 256 X 144 video quality when your connection is slowed down to 256 kbps. Both Crackle and YouTube support this, however, most streaming apps do not. If you try to stream Netflix at 256 kbps, you will just see a spinning “wheel” for hours. 256 X 144 video looks horrible, but it is watchable. I have watched whole movies at this resolution, and enjoyed them.
Another way to deal with a slow Internet connection is to download videos overnight. Just make sure to keep your download device unlocked. Apple devices have a nasty habit of turning off downloads when they’re locked.
I used this strategy to download Netflix videos onto my iPad. It takes about 4 hours to download a 90 minute movie in standard definition. Unfortunately, Netflix does not allow AirPlay to work with downloads. Netflix tries to blame this on AirPlay, but I know that even Apple lets iTunes downloads stream over AirPlay. Google Play also supports streaming downloaded video over AirPlay. Netflix may be a big, successful company, but they spend very little on software development, and it shows!
If you’re looking for entertainment, don’t forget video games. Video games can provide hours of entertainment without massive downloads. You can actually play online, multiplayer games with a slow connection. These games don’t send and receive massive amounts of data. They typically just use a few kilobytes to relay minimal data, such as player position. Riptide GP 2 got me through a few nights of slow data. Of course, the game is a big download, so make sure to install games before your Internet connection is slowed.
As mentioned, Google Fi is in beta for the iPhone. This means it is not a full release version. This may be why the discounts and credits are so steep. Users are still paying to test Google Fi. That said, it is a very stable beta. I haven’t had a problem yet. Being a beta version, however, make sure to update the Google Fi app on your iPhone regularly. This will provide you with the most defect-free and feature-rich experience.
Google Fi Wish List
Google Fi is such a great deal, I almost hate to complain about it at all. It’s like looking the proverbial gift horse in the mouth. I have used the service for almost three months now, and have spent maybe $20. Between the credits and sensible billing, this is one of the few cellular providers that won’t send you to the poor house for using your phone!
That said, slowing users down to 256 kbps is draconian. 256 kbps is basically unusable. It can actually be a safety hazard, as critical apps such as navigation and mapping may cease operating at such slow data speeds. Slowing users down this much also shoots Google in the foot. How many Google Play purchases will people make when they can’t really download anything? Google, Netflix, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and just about every tech company you can name is harmed when their potential customers can’t use their products.
Google needs to take a look at the economic impacts of slowing Fi users down to 256 kbps. At such speeds, their products and services are mostly unusable. I’m not saying that heavy data users don’t deserve to be throttled. It’s just that 256 kbps is ridiculous. That’s even slower than 1990s DSL. 1.5 Mbps is much more reasonable. At that speed, users can at least download purchases and use streaming subscriptions.
It’s odd that over the decades, cellular data costs haven’t really gone down. Even with Google Fi, it costs $10 a GB for data. There have been advances in cellular technology. Like every technology, it should be better, faster and cheaper. It’s not. It could be a case of telecom collusion. It’s par for the course with telecoms. They play dirty. Unfortunately, Google has to buy bulk cellular service from telecoms that are all on the same page — rip off the customer.
The reality is, Google can’t just charge $3 per GB and throttle heavy users down to 1.5 Mbps. They don’t own the cellular networks. We can only hope, in time, the market changes. It either needs regulation or some disruptive competitive force. When you see price stagnation with high tech, it’s usually the result of collusion.
It’s funny how few complain about cellular data gouging, yet so many get upset over the fictional “Apple tax”. (It’s mostly people who would never buy an Apple device.) Indeed, people often suck up to their cellular provider, posting screenshots of Speedtest results from off-peak hours. Yeah, let me know how fast it is at 7pm on a weeknight. These telecoms do a poor job of capacity planning. They never fail to collect your bill. It’s “five nines” when it comes time to collect the money for slow, expensive service with lots of outages.
There are so few players in the cellular game, and soon, with the Sprint/T-Mobile merger, there will even be fewer. The combined companies pledge not to raise rates for three years. Rates should be going down. Unlike every other technology, cellular service won’t budge. It’s due to anti-competitive behavior.
The other item on my Google Fi wish list also can’t be provided by Google. We can only hope, in time, that Apple embraces Google Fi. Most Apple users would love to have the ability to switch between multiple cellular networks on the fly. It’s up to Apple to provide this. If you think this is important, please let Apple know. It’s up to us to provide feedback that helps shape the future.
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