Google Fi Review, and (Finally!) International Roaming Rates May be Set to Drop

For years I have been frustrated with the costs of trying to take my cell phone on international travel.  Yes, one can buy cheap sim cards locally, but you obviously lose access to your domestic phone number for the duration (leaving aside dual-sim phones and some tricky and expensive forwarding tricks).  If you wanted to keep your phone number so people can still reach you on the number they already know, you were in for some crazy roaming charges -- particularly on data.  I use Verizon (mainly because my business takes me to out of the way places where Verizon is the last available carrier) but until recently their international rates were awful, charging one 50 cents per text and $25 per 100mb of data in addition to a $25 a month international plan fee.

I use a lot of data when overseas and outside my hotel room, so I really wanted a cheaper data plan  (Google maps is a lifesaver when one is walking streets with signs all written in Thai).  My go-to solution in the past was to have a T-Mobile account I turned on and off on an unlocked phone (an old Nexus 5).  T-mobile has plans that allow unlimited text and data without roaming charges in most countries, and it is still a good international solution, though I met with a few technical irritants in some of the countries I have visited.

A while back, I accidentally killed my old Nexus 5 and bought a new Nexus 5x with the intention of swapping in my T-mobile sim card from the old phone.  However, I saw an article that said the Nexus 5x was one of the couple of phones that would work with the new Google Fi service, so I signed up to try that.  $20 a month unlimited domestic calls and text and unlimited international texts.  Pretty cheap international calling rates and the phone defaults to calling by wifi if possible to save any charges.  Data at $10 per 1GB anywhere in the world, with any unused data credited at the end of the month (so the $10 is pro rated if you use less, essentially).

I used the phone in Thailand, Singapore, and Hong Kong, and not just in large cities -- we got out in the smaller cities well away from the tourist areas of Thailand.   Service was flawless everywhere with one exception (discussed in a minute).  Wifi calling worked fine and I had a good signal everywhere, even in smaller towns.  Charges were exactly as promised.  It was a very impressive service.  It uses the T-mobile network in most places, so I am a little reluctant to make it my full-time service because when I tested T-mobile several years ago, it just didn't reach far enough to the out-of-the way domestic locations I visit, but I plan to try again.  I would really love to be on this service rather than Verizon and believe it would save me a lot of money.

I only had two problems with it.  The minor problem was that I had some issues with wifi calling disconnects in one hotel, though this could easily have been due to the notoriously low-bandwidth of many hotel wifi systems**.  Switching off wifi and making a regular cell call worked fine.  Google says that the service automatically chooses between wifi and cellular based on bandwidth and conditions, but it may be this algorithm needs more work.

The more irritating problem was that the phone would simply not get a cellular data connection in Hong Kong.  I contacted Google service (this was a great process that involved sending them a message and them calling me back immediately, a better process in my mind when travelling internationally).  After some fiddling around, the service agent checked came back to me to say, "known problem in Hong Kong with internet access.  You will need to buy a local sim card.  We know this is a hassle, so we just credited your bill $20 to offset the cost."  It would have been better to not have this hassle -- I was switching sim cards every night to see if I had any texts at my domestic number -- but I thought they dealt with it as well as possible, and they were a hell of a lot more helpful than T-mobile was when I had an international roaming issue with them.

Under the T-mobile and Google Fi pressure (which really means due to T-mobile, since Google Fi is largely possible because of T-mobile), I am starting to see cracks in the pricing of Verizon.   They seem to have a new plan that allows one to keep their domestic data, text, and voice pricing and allowances while roaming internationally for a $10 a day charge.  This is still more expensive than T-Mobile and Google Fi but literally an order of magnitude, and maybe two, cheaper than what they were offering for international travel a year ago.

**Footnote:  I have way more sympathy for hotels and their wifi systems.  We installed a wifi system in a 100 site campground in Alabama.  That system has become a data black hole -- no matter how much bandwidth I invest in, people use more.  Every night it seems like there are 300 people on 100 campsites all trying to stream a movie in HD.  I am not sure it will ever enough, and we get no end of speed complaints despite having an absurd T1 bandwidth into the system.  I can't see myself ever investing in such a system again.

Postscript:  It is a good habit to point out data that is inconsistent with one's hypotheses.  I am incredibly skeptical of US anti-trust law, particularly since it seems to have morphed into protecting politically-connected competitors (e.g. cases against Microsoft and Google) vs. protecting consumer choice.  I will say though that the killing of the acquisition of T-mobile by AT&T seems to be a godsend for consumers in the cell phone business, as T-mobile has become a hugely disruptive force generally benefiting consumers.

  • davesmith001

    Regarding your postscript: even a broken clock is right twice a day.

  • IsaacCrawford

    T1 lines have next to no bandwidth as compared to even cheap cable plans. They are both more expensive and lower bandwidth,Che worst of all worlds. Why T1 is still offered is beyond me.

  • joshv

    " I am not sure it will ever enough, and we get no end of speed complaints despite having an absurd T1 bandwidth into the system. I can't see myself ever investing in such a system again."

    T1s I think are 1.5 Mbps - so yes, absurdly slow. I will note that at most hotels I stay at, the night time bandwidth sucks, for this very reason, everybody streaming movies all at once. One HD movie stream should take about 3-5Mbps. So if you've got 100 camp sites and 10 of them are streaming at any given time, you need 30-50Mbps. Bigger question is, WTF are people camping, they can stream movies at home.

  • ErikTheRed

    Yeah, T1s are pretty useless for anything involving streaming media. You may want to consider a service like OpenDNS that lets you block categories of sites like streaming video. They charge something like $10 per access point per month for something like this; if you have a large mesh AP network you may be able to work a deal with them.

    Frankly, I have zero sympathy for hotels because it's pretty straightforward to manage these things. The problem is that most hotels have IT infrastructure that looks like it was done by a bored high school student. This is more or less the reason they get hacked constantly. At least in your defense you're running a campground and people aren't paying $300 per night to stay there plus $15 per day (or whatever) for WiFi. For that kind of money these hotels should be able to put in a pretty robust Ethernet circuit that actually can handle streaming media - but instead they pocket the money and rip off their guests.

    For your campgrounds you might want to look into whether or not you can get some stupidly low government-rate pricing on high-bandwidth Internet. Then just have a tiered service that lets people have either free text/pictures only Internet or premium streaming-friendly Internet. I have no idea if this will work - access tends to be expensive in the boonies, but sometimes you can get a weird deal if the government is involved.

  • ErikTheRed

    Note on Verizon's TravelPass service - I'm using it right now in Mexico. Mexico and Canada are only $2 per day. It costs nothing to add the feature to your account and have it active unless you actually use it. It kicks in automatically and renews automatically as needed - I get a text every 24 hours saying that it's adding another TravelPass day. Even at $10 per day it makes it not worth worrying about fiddling with other carriers or services (and I'm guessing that will come down with time).

  • ErikTheRed

    Because you can get them just about anywhere - even in very remote areas - for a relatively reasonable price. Cable only goes where the cablecos decide they want it to go (obviously, where it's profitable). Telcos will run fiber to a lot of places for relatively reasonable prices these days, but "relatively reasonable" may not be that reasonable for a campground budget.

  • marque2

    Your Nexus 5x is a band 12 phone, which will allow you to use Tmobile's new 700mhz band which has much greater range. I bought my 5x specifically for the Band 12. Unfortunately, TMobile doesn't have band 12 rights in a few parts of the country, most notably Phoenix and San Diego County, CA. Spectrum squatters are holding the spectrum. It should be transferred and you will get Band 12 sometime end of Next year. When T-Mobile gets 700mhz fully rolled out, it should be comparable to Verizon. That should help with your Sprint/Tmobile FI service as well.

    Tmobile also has free roaming calls in several countries, I believe.

  • marque2

    You also must have more than a T1 line. T1 is only 1.5Mb/s compared to typical cable at 20Mb/s and DSL at 10. I know they charge businesses a lot more than private individuals for internet, but if you have 300 campers sharing 1.5Mb/s I can definitely see the problem.

  • marque2

    All the more reason for Binge-On!

  • mesocyclone

    You can still buy a T-1? That's ancient tech and only 1.4Mbps.

  • http://www.geoffjones.com Geoff

    When travelling I can really recommend the app maps.me which stores whole countries on your device before you leave. The routing etc is superb and the detail on the OSM maps it uses is excellent. Certainly on the iPhone the GPS works without data.

  • marque2

    Well then Coyote should restrict video and audio feeds. It is usually good enough to just get text feeds and basic web pages, and let the folks know streaming video and audio is restricted.

  • ErikTheRed

    Yes he should, but that's actually a lot harder than it sounds. Consider an *extremely* popular service like Facebook that distributes text, images, audio, and video... I haven't checked lately, but I'm not sure if there's even a way to separate out just the video.

  • http://merrillovermatter.blogspot.com/ Greg Merrill

    Couple things:

    Look at this company for wifi systems where you can rate limit people per connection: http://www.open-mesh.com/

    One idea is to allow very slow 'free' service and after a while perhaps offer a high speed pay service if there is enough bandwidth. Open mesh allows both options, and you can in fact have 4 simultaneous SSID's running with different options for each. remote management via web page, etc. Could provide a bit more additional revenue for you! contact me @gregmerrill:disqus if you want to know more

    glad to hear Google is taking on the high cost of international and domestic phone plans. If that was your only hiccup I'd consider it a success program so far. Yes, I know Hong Kong is a large city and they should have it fixed, but I'd be pretty certain they'll eventually fix it.