Tycho & Project Fi: Google’s Wireless Dream
Google’s mobile carrier is not rumored to launch in the US until next month, but like all projects of its size and breadth, the Mobile Virtual Network Operator is finding it difficult to stay in the shadows. In January, The Wall Street Journal set the stage of anticipation with rumors that Google Nova subscribers will be able to hot-swap between WiFi, Sprint and T-Mobile signals for improved coverage. Since then, we have heard Sundar Pichai confirm Nova’s existence at Mobile World Congress, seen rumors fly about Nexus 6 exclusivity, and readied for the big reveal at Google I/O 2015. This time, a new app accidentally released as part of a Nexus 6 firmware image gives us a glimpse into the pay-per-gigabyte service from a consumer’s point of view. What we see is a compelling business model that borrows many of the best features from its contemporaries, and a run-of-the-mill app that packs a few notable industry firsts.
The leaked app was first discovered and torn apart by Android Police, and puts names to the service’s various parts.
- Google Nova – Code name for Google’s virtual telecom company.
- Tycho – Code name for Nova’s account management app.
- Project Fi – Potentially official name of Nova’s service plan. This name is plastered all over the leaked app, and even comes complete with the branding logo above, but seems to hit a little too close to the mark. Is the plan’s cost really a “Fee”?
Unfortunately, the all that can be seen of Fi and Tycho is code – the sign-up process is currently handled through a separate, undisclosed website, and is likely being used for internal testing or a limited soft launch.
Next-Gen Billing Support Systems
Right now, most carriers require you to walk into a store or call customer service to manage the core aspects of your account – things like changing plans, activating service, and moving around phone numbers. This inefficient process is rooted in old-school billing support systems (BSS) that carriers are clamoring to faze out for more flexible and less costly solutions. Although we don’t know the specifics of Google’s back-end infrastructure, in-app prompts and guided progress messages for number transfers & requests hint that the search giant has used its new-kid status to get ahead of the curve. If true, this is a notable achievement; managing core tasks via app instead of a call center and cumbersome billing system mean Google can squeak by with fewer employees, and implement plan changes on the fly without the typical ordeal of a system rewrite. Here’s what this means for you, the end user, in terms of what you can do in-app:
- Start the activation process
- Request a new number
- Initiate number transfers
- Close account
- Put account on hold
- Resume service
Along with these advanced features, Tycho has the bases covered in a fairly ordinary fashion – view and pay bills, check out your usage, switching plans, etc.
Unlike larger carriers that focus on all-inclusive packages, Google’s approach to service plans is very modular and forgiving. Specific numbers have yet to be released, but here’s what we have gathered from the available code snippets:
- Data is offered at a flat rate per gigabyte, and is shared across devices
- Domestic calls & SMS messages are free and unlimited
- Domestic MMS messages are a flat rate per message
- International minutes, while not free like previously rumored, are cheaply purchased in bulk or individually at low rates.
- The plan’s base-cost depends on number of lines
- Data-only devices like tablets are supported.
This plan layout is perfectly aligned with Google’s existing Hangouts and Voice offerings, although this time Google is the one paying for the data or minutes that make your voice calls “free.”
There is also a conspicuous addition called “Extras,” thought to be the catch-all category for service fees and perhaps integrated Google Play billing, should you choose to pay for apps and media using your service contract.
Always The Best Service Provider
Easily the most anticipated feature of Nova is the ability to automatically switch between WiFi, T-Mobile and Sprint connectivity, based on whichever provider has the best signal in the moment. Unfortunately, today’s revelation does not directly address how this might work. One line does mention automatic switching, and numerous others point to carrier switching in general, but the rest is murky.
Google Voice Integration
Voice and Project Fi are separate beasts, but porting from one to the other is allowed. No real news here.
If you continue, your existing Google Voice number will be released – no getting it back. Rather keep your Google Voice number? Just start over to get it transferred.
To make this your Project Fi number, first transfer it from Google Voice. Allow up to two business days for the transfer.
Devices & Financing
Tacking Play Store purchases onto your bill, as mentioned above, is pure speculation. Tacking on Device purchases, on the other hand, is a certainty. So far only the Nexus 6 is mentioned, but it appears as though zero-interest financing with an undisclosed down payment will be boosting Nexus sales in the near future.
Ads: Google’s Bread & Butter
Project Fi usage data may include your Customer Proprietary Network Information, of “CPNI”. To restrict the use of your CPNI in connection with related information services provided by Google, you can turn off the setting to share Project Fi usage data. This won’t affect your use of Project Fi services but may affect Google’s ability to offer products and services tailored to your needs. Project Fi collects and uses your CPNI according to the Terms of Service.
This includes things like call history data that, while protected by some laws, is usually collected and sold by carriers in some form. Unlike most carriers, Google’s MVNO appears to make the opt-out clearly visible and easy to access. Kudos.
Launch date – Most rumors point to Google I/O, and for good reason. May 28th and 29th line up with the vague answers we heard from Sundar Pichai at Mobile World Congress (along with the statements of anonymous insiders), but more importantly the event is big. In the past, Google has used I/O as a platform launching event, unveiling the likes of Google TV, Google Glass, Android Wear, and Android Auto. It makes sense that this new experiment kicks off with similar fanfare.
Devices – The Nexus 6 is the only phone listed for financing, but this doesn’t mean it’s the only one that will be on offer. Google pulled the Nexus 5 from the Play Store earlier this year, so the 6 is simply what they have in the system. We have speculated about device offerings before, but now is a “wait and see” moment. At the very least, it looks like tablets will be supported on data only plans, so the Nexus 6 won’t be alone.
Prices – We know the plans, but not the details. Pricing a product is a tricky business, and involves both the seller’s costs (like negotiated rates with T-Mobile and Sprint), and what people are willing to pay. We won’t even begin to speculate on these, but we can at least point out the market into which Google is entering.
What does any of this mean for competing MVNOs and telcos? We will have to wait for the price announcements next month to see how attractive an offer Nova has become, but it looks like the service is quickly coming together. What do you think about Google Nova and its flexible Pay Per GB service plans? Let us know in the comments!