Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Google's MVNO - Project Fi is disappointing

A first look at Google's MVNO to launch in the US on the Sprint and T-Mobile networks reveals itself a little disappointing (or a relief if you are a network operator). I had chronicled the announcement of the launch from Mobile World Congress and expected much more disruption in services and pricing than what is announced here.

The MVNO, dubbed project Fi, is supposed to launch shortly and you have to request an invitation to get access to it (so mysterious and exciting...).

At first glance, there is little innovation in the service. The Google virtual network will span two LTE networks from different providers (but so is Virgin's in France for instance) and will also connect "seamlessly" to the "best" wifi hotspot. It will be interesting to read the first feedback on how the device selects effectively the best signal from these three options and how dynamically that selection occurs. Handover mid call or mid data sessions are going to be an interesting use case, Google assures you that the transition will be "seamless".

On the plus side, Google has really taken a page from Iliad's free disruptive service launched in France and one-time rumored to acquire T-Mobile US. See here the impact their pricing strategy  has had on the French telecommunications market.
  1. Fi Basic service comes with unlimited US talk and text, unlimited international text and wifi tethering for $20 per month.
  2. The subscriber is supposed to set a monthly data budget, whereas he selects a monthly amount and prepays 10$ per GB. At the end of the month, the amount of unused data is credited back for 1c / MB towards the following month. The user can change their budget on a monthly basis. Only cellular data is counted towards usage, not wifi. That's simple, easy to understand and after a little experimentation, will feel very natural.
  3. No contract, no commitment (except that you have to buy a 600+$ Nexus phone).
  4. You can send and receive all cellular texts and calls using Google hangouts on any device.
  5. Data roaming is same price as domestic but... see drawbacks

Here are, in my mind, the biggest drawbacks with the service as it is described.
  1. The first big disappointment is that the service will run initially only on Google's Nexus 6. I have spoken at length on the dangers and opportunities of a fully vertical delivery chain in wireless networks and Google at first seems to pile up the drawbacks (lack of device choice) with little supposed benefits (where is the streamlined user experience?).
  2. "Project Fi connects you automatically to free, open wifi networks that do not require any action to get connected". I don't know you, but I don't think I have ever come across one of these mysterious hotspots in the US. Even Starbucks or MC Donald free hot spots require to accept terms and conditions and the speed is usually lower than LTE. 
  3. Roaming data speed limited to 256 kbps! really? come on, we are in 2015. Even if you are not on LTE, you can get multi Mbps on 3G / HSPA. Capping at that speed means that you will not be streaming video, tethering or using data hungry apps (Facebook, Netflix, Periscope, Vine, Instagram...). What's the point, at this stage, better say roaming only on wifi  (!?).
In conclusion, it is an interesting "project", that will be sure to make some noise and have an impact on the already active price war between operators in the US, but on the face of it, there is too little innovation and too much hassle to become a mass market proposition. Operators still have time to figure out new monetization strategies for their services, but more than ever, they must choose between becoming wholesaler or value added providers.


Maran said...

Thanks for your assessment, Patrick. I fully agree. It's their 1st incarnation of the connectivity Service and clearly an experiment they are trying to learn from (& probably following the "fail fast, fail cheap" Mantra) which might explain the really miserable roaming deal.

1. However what I'm still not fully clear of is what motives are driving Google? And is it only specifically true for the US market?

These are my hypotheses (which I haven't validated with data)concerning the US market:
1. Google’s main market and highest contributor to firm performance
2. Has poor mobile coverage -> hygienic element for Google’s internet services over mobile (present & future)
3. High public WiFi network penetration
4. Poor Price-performance for connectivity and lack of price transparency/certainly to consumers -> aspects that might limit Google's (new) services takeup

In short, would Google replicate this model for other markets that seem to have the similar conditions above?

Any opinions here?

Patrick Lopez said...

Hello Maran,

I believe their motivation comes from the fact that mobile viewership of their content and properties (YouTube, advertising...) has grown from 5 to 35% in the last 2 years and they are starting to understand that monetization of that channel requires more vertical integration than anticipated. Like for Google TV, the ecosystem is complex and hostile to new entrants and the cost of entry are high.
Your assumptions about the US market are mostly valid, but I do not think they factored heavily in Google's decision. I believe that they mostly needed a market big enough to have critical mass of their other services to use a catalyst to enter the mobile field.