Google expands Project Fi to tablets with flat rate package

Written by on December 18, 2015 in News with 0 Comments

Project FiGoogle continues to chip away at the traditional mobile operator business model in the US, this time by extending its Project Fi multi-network MVNO service to data-only devices such as tablets, including iPads.

Using a free data-only SIM card ordered from their Project Fi online account page, customers can access cellular networks at a flat rate of $10 per gigabyte. The option is only available, for now at least, to those who already subscribe to the main Fi service, which charges $20 a month for unlimited domestic talk and text, unlimited international texts, WiFi tethering to use the phone as a hotspot, and cellular access in more than 120 countries. The tablet cannot be used as a hotspot. Up to nine devices can be linked to each Fi account with the data-only SIMs. The initial supporting tablets are the Nexus 7, Nexus 9, iPad Air 2, iPad Mini 4 and Galaxy Tab S.

There is no upfront charge to connect each new device – another blow to any lingering operator hopes that subscribers would accept a separate data plan per connected device. Most MNOs have moved towards shared plans, in which a certain number of gadgets share a single bucket of data, and these have been a significant source of growth, especially in the US, in the past two years. However, they typically charge about $10 for each new connection.

Google’s move takes even that cost-effective option out of the control of the operators – like the original smartphone version of Fi, this one rides on WiFi plus two mobile networks, those of Sprint and T-Mobile, centering the customer relationship around the search giant and its apps, not the individual network or carrier. However, this is not just about Android, since iPads can also be included.

Project Fi has a tiny share of the US market so far, but it blazes a trail which other non-traditional service providers could follow, and that would be as important to Google as large subscriber numbers of its own. As with its own-branded devices, its goal is not to become a premier league vendor or operator, but to shake up the norms of the mobile industry in order to broaden access to its revenue-generating adverts and apps.

So the data-only Fi SIM card could make it far more cost-effective to have a cellular/WiFi tablet, while adding the benefits of wireless coverage even outside the range of a WiFi hotspot. Since the advent of tablets, adoption has been weighted towards WiFi-only devices which are cheaper to buy and own, and do not require any kind of cellular plan.

However, now they are moving into the realm of the WiFi-first services, like Fi itself and those from start-ups like Republic Wireless. Whereas mobile operators still, despite all the flat-rate tariffs and data buckets, command a significant premium for 3G and LTE, WiFi-first offerings use those networks only when no WiFi is available, significantly reducing mobile data fees – and the strain on the operator’s network. The latter factor explains why companies such as Sprint and TMO are willing to accommodate WiFi-first MVNOs on their networks, and even to offer WiFi-first options themselves to budget users.

So there may be an uneasy but logical balance of interests between the MNOs, keen not to see their LTE networks crashing under the weight of YouTube usage, and the WiFi-first providers, who effectively offload a large amount of low value data (and subscribers) to WiFi.

But when Google gets in on the act, the ramifications may be far greater for the MNOs because it has such significant potential to reshape the business model to its own advantage. The search giant is continuing what it started with Google Voice – tying services which were entirely managed by the MNO’s platform into its own cloud systems. Just as it shifted support for NFC payments authentication from the operator SIM card to the cloud using the HCE (host card emulation) technology, so it stores Project Fi phone numbers in the cloud, entwining voice and text with its own Google Hangouts offering.

So far, Google is only experimenting. The service is only available in the US, on three handsets (Nexus 5X, Nexus 6 and Nexus 6P) and five tablets, and by invitation-only. But the move to third party tablets is a big one because it shows how quickly Fi could be opened up to a far wider base, without Google having to build networks or even a particularly hefty MVNO platform, since it has the cloud services in place already. It would not be a major step to divorce the data-only SIM card option from the mainstream Project Fi, resurrecting the dreams of open data access which were one incentive for Google to invest in WiMAX and Clearwire back in the day.

“As the number and variety of connected devices continues to grow, so should the number of wireless options,” Laura Holmes, senior product manager for Project Fi, wrote in a blog post. “We’ll continue to experiment with creative ways to make accessing wireless from your connected device as easy as connecting with your phone.”

First published at Rethink Wireless

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About the Author

About the Author: Caroline Gabriel is Research Director & Co-Founder at Rethink Technology Research. She has been analyzing and reporting in the hi-tech industries since 1986 and has a huge wealth of experience of technology trends and how they impact on business models. .

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