If you’re tired of the big US mobile phone companies (Sprint, AT&T, Verizon, U.S. Cellular, and T-Mobile), you may want to consider two very strong contenders: Google Project Fi and Republic Wireless 3.0. Below is my review and comparison of the two service providers. I am a customer of both. I have been with Republic Wireless since the beginning and am a more recent Google Project Fi customer starting in July 2016.
[BTW, if you decide to go with Project Fi, please use my “refer a friend” code. After you’ve been on the service for 30 days, you’ll get a credit for $20, and so will I! The code is WKN59C or you can just follow this link. This is valid for single accounts (not family plan accounts) and may expire August 1, 2017 (they have extended the deadline for this program, but haven’t stated a new end date.]
What Do Google Fi and Republic Wireless Have in Common and What’s Different?
- Both companies offer service on certain high-end GSM Android-based phones. Google Fi works with two Nexus phones, Republic Wireless offers several from the Moto, Nexus, and Samsung lines.
- Both companies allow you to purchase a phone from them or bring your own unlocked phone
- Both companies allow you to make calls and send text messages over WiFi
- Both companies are month-to-month, no contract
- Google Project Fi service automatically routes your calls and data on one of three 4G LTE networks, depending on which is best. Republic Wireless is piggybacked on T-Mobile’s network.
- Both companies offer very competitively priced data plans
- You are more likely to have better mobile call quality with Project Fi than you are with Republic Wireless, but I have had very few problems with Republic Wireless’ call quality in recent years. If you are placing calls on a WiFi network, either provider works great.
- Both companies offer the option of monthly payments/financing on the phones they sell
- Republic Wireless plans start at $15/month (does not include any data). Google Fi’s plan starts at $20/month (you’ll be charged more if you use any data). Data on Republic Wireless is cheaper than on Google Fi, however, Google Fi’s billing model is much more flexible since you only pay for the data you use–and you only pay to the penny.
- With Republic Wireless, you will know exactly how much you will be billed at the end of the month by which plan you select. With Project Fi, you will know the base costs, and then the actual bill depends entirely on how much data you use.
- Republic Wireless requires you to upgrade your plan when you hit your data limit. You can upgrade and downgrade your plan up to two times per month. This is a bit of a pain. You also must pay for the entirety of the amount of data in the plan you select no matter what portion of the data you use.
- Republic Wireless does not have a family or group plan, Project Fi just launched a “group plan’ in October 2016 with very competitive rates, bill splitting features, and data plan sharing.
What’s So Special About These Two Companies?
They have some great selling points and great phones in common. I am a customer of both of these services, so I wanted to share some insights for people trying to figure out if they should dump the usual suspect mobile carriers and save money. (The answer is probably YES!)
Republic Wireless and Google Project Fi have some important similarities starting with the fact that both phone companies have disrupted the wireless phone service market to some degree. Here is a comparison of some of the important features between the two companies:
Republic Wireless and Google Fi are ONLY compatible with Android phones. When you sign up for either of these companies, you’ll either have to bring your own phone (which will be a narrow list of approved Android phones) or purchase one from the company. The phones they utilize are generally among the higher end phones. If you purchase a phone from either company, it will come “unlocked” — it will be yours to take with you should you ever decide to move to a different phone company.
Likewise, if you buy your own phone (or if you already had one that’s compatible), it will need to be unlocked. If you are purchasing a new phone, just be sure that not only is it a compatible model, but that it is an unlocked phone. If you have a compatible phone that you purchased on a plan through AT&T, for example, it may not be unlocked. You may or may not be able to get AT&T to unlock it for you, depending on your contract. Both companies will provide you with a SIM card that you’ll need to install to use the service.
What Are the Phone Options?
Google Project Fi Phone Options
At the moment, the only phones that both companies sell are the Google Pixel, LG Nexus 5 and Huawei Nexus 6. These are venerable phones, and the flagship phones of the Android operating system. Generally speaking, if you have one of these phones, you’ll get a monthly software update from Google–You will always have the latest release of Android. Google Fi only sells / and is compatible with the Nexus 5, Nexus 6 and the Pixel phones from Google. Again, any of these are super-awesome–and are going to get the latest Android updates monthly. You can purchase these phones from Google when you sign up for service, but you should double-check the price on Amazon just to make sure you can’t get a better deal. (Amazon Nexus 5, Google Pixel or Amazon Nexus 6). You can finance the phones and get device protection through Google or Amazon.
Project Fi will allow you to add a free additional “data only” SIM card to your account. This will let you share your data plan with another device (without any additional monthly fees!) So for example, you could have your main SIM card in your Nexus phone, and then put the data-only SIM in an iPhone 6. Whatever the device, so long as it’s able to use a compatible SIM card, and it is radio compatible with T-Mobile. You would not be able to use the phone’s dialer with this option and there is no tethering.
Here is a list of devices they have verified are compatible with the free data-only SIM card:
- Nexus 7 – K009 (2013 US LTE)
- Nexus 9 – 0P82300 (2014 US LTE)
- iPad Air 2 – Model A1567 (2014)
- iPad Mini 4 – Model A1550 (2015)
- iPad Pro – Model A1652 (2015)
- Galaxy Tab S – Model SM-T807V (2015)
- Nexus 5X (North American version)
- Nexus 6 (North American version)
- Nexus 6P (North American version)
Other devices not on the list could work, if they are radio-compatible with T-Mobile and they have the right sized SIM slot. For example, I have heard of people using it with their iPhone 6. You can just order one and try (it’s totally free! You don’t even have to pay for shipping.) if you think you have an unlocked device that will work. Just remember there will be no calls or texts through the normal channels (although you can certainly replace the regular dialer and text messenger with some other app for example, What’s App, Viber, or Skype…)
Republic Wireless Phone Options
Republic Wireless is not limited to three phones. They offer several more phones and that gives you more freedom if you’re bringing your own unlocked phone that is on their short approved list. Here is a list of phones they are currently compatible with (The model number IS important!).
I have included a link to Amazon.com for each phone. You are likely to find the phone cheaper on Amazon, than on the Republic Wireless site, in some cases $50-100 cheaper–especially for the Moto G, since Amazon is selling it at a discount, but it includes some relatively innocuous advertising.
At any rate, as long as the model numbers match, you will be able to use it on Republic Wireless–just be sure to double check the model as sometimes these links get switched out to different products on Amazon’s end, and I can’t control that:
- Moto G4 (XT1625) – This phone is available from Amazon.com with (relatively unobtrusive) ads (that can be turned off without very much effort!), a great deal if you already have Amazon Prime – Check the Price Here.
- Moto G4 PLUS (XT1644) – Check Amazon’s Price Here.
- Moto G4 PLAY (XT?) – Check Amazon’s Price Here.
- Moto X Pure Edition (XT1575) – Check Amazon’s Price Here
- Nexus 5X by LG (LGH790) – Check Amazon’s Price Here
- Nexus 6P by Huawei (H1511) – Check Amazon’s Price Here
- Samsung Galaxy J3 (2016) (SM-J320A) – Check Amazon’s Price Here
- Samsung Galaxy S6 (SM-G920T) – Check Amazon’s Price Here
- Samsung Galaxy S7 (SM-G930U) – Check Amazon’s Price Here
- Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge (SM-G935U) – Check Amazon’s Price Here
- Google Pixel
If you already have one of the above phones and want to check to make sure it’s compatible, you can just download, install, and run the Republic Wireless app from the Android app store. It will tell you if your phone is compatible.
I wouldn’t mind having any of the above phones, but the Nexus and Galaxy S6 and S7 are my favorites. Both Republic Wireless and Google Project Fi will allow you to purchase the phone outright, or pay for the phone over time. At this writing Project Fi also offers insurance on the phone, Republic Wireless does not. Insurance is something Republic is said to be working on.
Multiple Mobile Networks and WiFi in Use
One very cool feature of both Republic Wireless and Google Project Fi is the way they can move seamlessly between wireless networks, and they can also place calls/send text on WiFi networks. Google Fi has the upper hand here, as it can make use of 3 major US mobile phone networks: Sprint, T-Mobile, and US Cellular. Whichever network is providing the strongest signal is the one that your call will be routed on. It does this in real-time, so if you should move to an area where one of the three providers is giving you a better signal your call will switch networks and you’ll be none the wiser.
Republic Wireless utilizes just one network–it’s either T-Mobile or AT&T (actually, they don’t tell you, but they hint that it’s the one that has the best 4G LTE network, and that would be AT&T). Republic Wireless’ previous phones were all ‘CDMA’ phones that used the Sprint Network. They say they may bring on some phones that use Sprint instead of AT&T. If they do, I’d probably still go with an AT&T compatible phone, as Sprint’s network tends to be weaker than AT&Ts.
The Seamless Handover Between Phone and WiFi
Both Republic Wireless and Project Fi will allow you to seamlessly switch over to and away from a WiFi connection. This is REALLY handy. Especially if you live in a place where there just isn’t really any strong cellular signal (or if, for example, you work in a basement that has WiFi, but no mobile signals get through). If you’re on the WiFi network, you don’t incur any data charges and you can use voice, data, and texting as you would on the mobile network.
If you place a call, and then move away from your WiFi network, your phone is going to seamlessly jump on to the wireless network, assuming one is available. Google Fi keeps a database of hundreds of open WiFi networks that it can automatically connect to. When it does, it always uses an encrypted connection to protect your calls and data.
The Data Plans and Costs
Depending on your situation, you will probably find that you’ll save money using either one of these companies, when you compare them to AT&T, Sprint, or Verizon.
The Cost of Project Fi
Google Fi Monthly Payment = Base Cost of $20/month + data used & international calls + phone insurance (optional) + taxes, fees (in my case $3.62 in October 2016 to be exact–see sample bill below). If you’re paying for your phone on a monthly basis, that fee would also be charged on your monthly bill.
Project Fi is really a pay-as-you-go offering. They do give you benchmark “plans” but really, at the end of the month you’re only going to pay for what you actually used as far as data (down to the megabyte). This is a bit hard to grasp, because we’re so used to phone companies that charge you the minimum of your chosen data plan and then charge you for additional data as you go, but in specific large blocks of data. This is not the case with Project Fi.
When you sign up for Project Fi, you will choose a data plan, but really it’s just to give you the idea of what you will be spending. Even though you signed up for a plan, they charge you by the megabyte. To put this more specifically, Google currently charges a base of $20/month to keep the service activated for voice and texting, then they charge $10/gig of data used (plus a monthly fee). In reality though, if you only used 350 megabytes in a month, you would be charge $3.50 for data, not the whole $10. So you are always charged for just what you used, no matter which plan you select.
Project Fi’s help explains signing up for a data plan on their network this way “You’ll always pay for what you use, so changing your data budget is like setting a goal. We’ll send you alerts as you get close to your budget.” They go on to explain that “With Project Fi, you’re charged $10 per GB for data. If you use more data than your budget, you’ll be charged for the exact difference–at the exact same rate. If you use less, you’ll get credited for what you don’t use. ”
If you really need to have no more than an exact amount of data used, you can use your phone’s “set mobile data limit” features to set a hard limit. This way, when your phone notices you’ve reached a certain data threshold it will shut off its mobile data usage.
An important, and notable feature of Project Fi is that if you travel to any of 135+ other countries, your data plan will still be in effect–you won’t be charged any extra (beyond the regular $10/gig), and you’ll be able to consume data, just as you did in the USA. I recently traveled to Italy, France, Spain, and Germany with my Project Fi phone and had success with calls, text messages, and data. This is a great feature because you don’t have to worry with purchasing a local SIM card or anything like that. Once I got to a new country, it took a few minutes, but I’d get a message from Project Fi confirming my phone had been registered in the given country, and then I could make calls, send texts, and use data. For more details and to see the list of countries that are in Project Fi’s plan, click here.
Note that although your data costs will be the same as they are in the USA, expect to pay 20 cents per minute for calls. Assuming you have a US phone number, WiFi calls within the USA and abroad would be free, and beyond that, if you’re calling another country, the same international calling rates would apply. If you are wondering, yes, you can send text messages to other countries from Project Fi phones–I have texted to Germany and Ukraine without problems. Again, when you’re traveling to other countries you can send unlimited text messages for free. This is really helpful!
Project Fi offers a group plan as of October 2016. Additional lines are $15/month and then the data is shared at the same rates mentioned above. One great feature of this group/family plan is the “repay” feature. “Project Fi plan members can repay group plan owners for their share of the monthly bill directly through the Project Fi app. No need to pull out your calculator—Project Fi will handle the math. Reminders, payments, and tracking are all just as simple.” That means it’s a bit easier if you’re sharing an account with friends or roommates, everyone can easily pay their share of the wireless bill.
One pitfall I have run into that seems like a big issue, but really is inconsequential is the fact that you need an @gmail.com email address to sign up for Project Fi. This means that if you’re using G-Suite (ie- a custom domain name (typically for businesses) that you use with Gmail so you get and send email through a email@example.com address), you will not be able to setup an account on Project Fi. The answer to this problem is simple and at least in my case, has proven to be quite benign–just set up a free @gmail.com account to use in creating your account.
When you first setup your phone, use your custom Gmail domain when you’re prompted to give your Google Account username and password. After the main setup is complete, when you go to activate Project Fi, it’s going to give you an error about not being able to sign up with your current domain, but then it prompts you to give your @gmail.com address. So that’s the point when you need to enter your newly created (or previously created) @gmail.com account. Once this is done, everything should be the same–your custom domain account will be the main account on the phone.
I can’t think of what issues there might be with this…but it is definitely working just fine for me, and I haven’t noticed any problems making calls, getting messages, sending emails, or using apps. BTW, if not already enabled, you are going to want your G-Suite administrator to turn on Google Assistant for you–it isn’t on my default so your new phone might not be able to use Google Assistant until that’s done.
The Cost of Republic Wireless 3.0 Plans
Republic Wireless has a base cost of /month. This base cost includes no data, and doesn’t include things like taxes, phone payment plan, etc. But if you own the phone outright, that is a great starting point. For college students who are near ubiquitous WiFi, that could truly be all you need. Plans go up from there. Most people will need a data plan, and with Republic Wireless, you get 1 gig included for $20/month. Not bad.
Here is a chart (as of 8/6/2016) that shows how the rates increase with more data. You will find these rates turn out to be lower cost than Google Project Fi. See below for a direct comparison.
Republic Wireless allows you to switch plans via their app whenever you want, so if you hit your limit or need to cut back, you can do that at will. It is important to understand that unlike with Project Fi, you can’t just keep using data beyond your selected plan. The data will stop when you hit your data plan limit. At that point you can upgrade to a higher plan through the Republic Wireless app, and you will immediately have more data at your disposal.
On the other hand, if you then want to downgrade again, you can request it, but it doesn’t take place until the beginning of the next billing cycle. (I think you can just do this immediately after you upgrade, so you won’t have to wait an extra billing cycle to switch back down). With Republic Wireless, you still get billed for the entire amount of your data plan, even if you don’t use it.
Comparing the Cost of Republic Wireless vs Google Project Fi
In short, although there are some nuances to this, Google Project Fi is more expensive than Republic Wireless at every level.
Base Plan (No data) cost
Republic Wireless: $15/month (no group/family plan at this time)
Google Project Fi: $20/month first line, $15/month additional group plan lines
Republic Wireless: Depends on the amount of data. All plans already include unlimited voice & texting: 1 gig $20; 2 gigs $30; 4 gigs $45, etc. (as of 8/6/2016). You DO have to pay for unused data.
Google Project Fi: Base Cost of $20 PLUS the data costs (but only for the exact amount of data you use): $10/gig. So a one gig plan would be $30/month; 2 gig plan would $40/month, etc. +taxes, fees, etc. I am in Maryland, and I paid $3.62 in taxes and fees on my October bill (see below).
Project Fi Sample Bill
Here is a sample bill from Google’s Project Fi for one line in October 2016… and if you’re wondering what the taxes and fees look like on Project Fi, there is a breakout (again for October 2016 in Maryland! It might be somewhat different in other states):
You can’t go wrong with either of these phone companies. Both offer great service and operate with very decent phones. Google Fi has the power of additional phone networks, encrypted WiFi, international data, phone insurance, etc, but Republic Wireless gets the job done at lower costs. Since there are no contracts with either company, you just have to finish paying for the current month and you’re done. You can certainly try Republic Wireless and if you don’t like it, you could switch to Google Project Fi (assuming you are using one of the two compatible Nexus phones!). The hardest part would be changing out the SIM card in your phone (which isn’t that hard, but can be kind of a pain if you’re a bit ham fisted like me.)