The Android Switch: Bringing My Phone Number to Android and Project Fi

Posted on September 30, 2017 by Paul Thurrott in Android, Cloud, iOS, Mobile with 48 Comments

The Android Switch: Bringing My Phone Number to Android and Project Fi

My old Project Fi SIM secured to the new SIM’s SIM kit for safekeeping.

Two and a half weeks ago, I wrote that I was switching from the iPhone to Android. Today, finally, I can say that the transition has started.

The first step in this kind of transition would normally be choosing a phone. But as I noted in I’m Switching to Android (Premium), I can use my 2016 Google Pixel XL—hampered by its 32 GB of non-expandable storage—until I see what Google announces in October. (Yes, most of that has since leaked.) Of course, when I made that decision, we had about a month to go. So I thought I’d jump forward to the second step, which was leaving my current wireless carrier (AT&T Wireless) and moving to Google Project Fi, which, as you know, I love.

I had left Verizon and its then-superior EV-DO networking technology to join AT&T Wireless and its terrible 2.5G EDGE network in mid-2007 in order to get the first iPhone on its release day. Since that day, the phone number I received from AT&T has been my primary cell phone number. And now, with the move to the new house, and our decision not to have a home phone of any kind, it’s my primary phone number too.

Moving a phone number between carriers is just like switching cable providers: It’s scary, like picking a scab, but I feel like once you do it that first time, it will become easier and less stressful in the future. But the stress on this transition was at an all-time high because of the length of service. That phone number is like my social security number, my identity. For many people, it is me.

And yet, I approached this with high hopes. My experiences with Project Fi, after all, had been unanimously positive.

Until, of course, they weren’t.

What happened was unnecessary. And while I’m willing to take some of the blame, a big part of the problem was some Project Fi inflexibility around what is admittedly a rare circumstance. So let’s see if I can describe this in a way that makes sense. I doubt it.

I’ve had multiple phone numbers for a while. When it seemed like Microsoft might make a go at Windows phone, I maintained three phone numbers through AT&T, one each for my Windows phone, an Android handset, and the then-current iPhone. For several of those years, a Windows phone was my primary phone, and on that first number that I’m still using. When Windows phone finally failed in 2015, I started the move to iPhone with the iPhone 6S Plus. Since then, an iPhone has been my primary phone, and today that phone is the iPhone 7 Plus.

Two other things related to phone numbers and carriers have happened during this time period. First, I signed up for Project Fi when I purchased the excellent Nexus 6P in late 2015. And second, I got rid of my two secondary AT&T accounts/phone numbers.

I’ve always wanted to move to Project Fi, basically from day one, and has the service proved its worth across multiple international trips over time, my desire to make this happen grew. There was just one issue: I was using the iPhone day-to-day, and I still preferred iOS over Android, though that advantage got chipped away over subsequent Android OS releases. Basically, I’d use the iPhone most of the time, and when a trip came up, I’d use the Nexus 6P, and then the Pixel XL, because of Project Fi and because they took superior photos. It worked.

I have two Google accounts, a Gmail account with a gmail.com email address, and what is now called a G Suite account, which is a custom domain (thurrott.com). There are all kinds of reasons for why thurrott.com is on Google, but believe it or not, the biggest is just a random bit of timing: I had been using it on Windows Live Custom Domains when that was still a thing, had moved it to Google (then called Google Apps) just to test it. My primary email address was a Hotmail account that dates back 15 years. But when I signed up with BWW Media (then called Blue Whale Web), they were all on Google and the domain we had chosen for this site—thurrott.com—was on Google, so there you go. (I’ve been working to move us to Office 365 for over two years, by the way. No promises, but I’m trying.)

Anyway, my Hotmail and Gmail.com accounts feed email into my Thurrott.com account, so I never really use them directly. And when I started with Project Fi, the service only supported Gmail accounts, and not G Suite/Google App accounts. (This is a big issue on the Google stuff, by the way, but let’s not get too distracted.) So I signed up via my Gmail account, not my primary Thurrott.com (G Suite) account.

Which is fine. When I signed in to my Nexus 6P or Pixel XL, for the first time, or after a reset, with my Thurrott.com account, the Project Fi service would try to activate against that, and it would fail. Then, it would just prompt me to sign in with a different account, so I would do so with my Gmail account, and it would work. This was a workable system, and it was fine for over a year and a half.

This past summer, Google finally started supporting G Suite accounts with Project Fi. And, this past summer, in the middle of all the complications and stresses of moving to a new state, and started thinking about making the switch. To Android. And, if I could, to Project Fi. (The biggest issue with Project Fi is that it has only supported Google phones to date; recently, of course, Google revealed that it will begin allowing select Android One phones on the service too, so the future should offer more choice.)

The impetus for this change, frankly, was the iPhone 7 Plus, this first lackluster handset from Apple. It is the first iPhone to ever sport a camera that works more poorly than that of its predecessor, and that camera is demonstrably of lower quality than several Android phones that have come through my home, including the Samsung Galaxy S8+ (which my wife is now using), the Nexus 6P, and the Pixel XL. And that oft-touted portrait mode? It’s a parlor trick that works poorly, with terrible edge detection that ruins more shots than it benefits. This is the first time I’ve ever been so disappointed in an iPhone camera. The photos it takes are washed out and inferior, and it has weighed on me for a full year now.

(Since it’s not possible to accurately criticize anything without drawing the ire of some anonymous fanboy, I will point out that the iPhone, generally, and the iPhone 7 Plus in particular, has many positive attributes. iOS is rock-solid, the phone itself has never, not once, suffered from any performance or reliability issues, and unlike with every single Android device I’ve ever used, I’ve never, not once, needed to reboot it or reset it back to its factory settings. The iPhone may be bland, but it does just work, and if that matters to you—yes, it should—then it’s a fine choice. Happy? No, I didn’t think so.)

So here are in late summer 2017. I already know that Apple’s next-generation iPhone releases—the iPhone 8, 8 Plus, and X—are going to be lackluster and can be skipped. I want to move to Android. Project Fi supports G Suite accounts, so I can open a new account with Thurrott.com, port my AT&T number over, and I can start using Android.

I love it when a plan comes together like this. But then, I can’t have nice things, either. So it didn’t work. Not for almost three weeks.

Signing up for Project Fi couldn’t be easier. Unlike with my initial sign-up from almost two years ago on my Gmail account, this time I told the sign-up wizard that I did want to port a number (instead of getting a new number). It ran some checks, told me it could work, and we moved on in the process.

Here’s where I screwed up. In my defense, there was no warning at all that what I thought I could do was impossible. But I still could have, and should have, made a different decision.

Project Fi asked me if I needed a SIM. I have a Project Fi SIM. Its already sitting in the phone I want to use. So I answered no.

Here’s the killer. Answering no is what delayed this process by almost three weeks. But I answered no because I wanted to make the switch immediately. I knew that if I asked for a new SIM, I’d have to wait for it to arrive in the mail. I had some work travel coming up, including a now-canceled trip to Japan in early October on which I really wanted to use this new set-up. And I wanted to be up and running, reliably, before any of that. So I answered no.

Here’s where the “rare circumstance” I mentioned earlier comes into play. I’m an existing Project Fi customer, using a Gmail account. I want to switch that account to my G Suite account. And I want to bring over a number from another carrier.

Now, I don’t expect Project Fi to let me “switch” an account. I know I have to create a new Project Fi account to do this. But what I didn’t know, what Project Fi likewise didn’t know, was that you can’t do this on an existing SIM that is being used by a different account.

The first thing I tried was to look at the wonderfully simple Project Fi app on the Pixel XL and see if I could just sign out. Nope.

OK, no problem: After backing it up, I reset the Pixel XL for probably the 7th or 8th time, went through the first-run experience, and signed in with my Thurrott.com account. But the Project Fi service would not auto sign-in, as it had done before. When I went to manually sign-in, using Thurrott.com not my Gmail account, it failed too.

At first, I thought this had something to do with the transition from AT&T to Project Fi. Again, this was a scary process, and it wasn’t clear how long it could take. But as this failure to sign-in continued, I finally decided to contact Project Fi support. Which I did two weeks ago, on Friday, September 15.

You know how these things go, so I won’t belabor the point. The support person—friendly and happy to help—stepped me through many obvious troubleshooting steps I’d already tried. Was confused by exactly what it was I was doing. And then finally had me read the IMEI from my phone and then attempted to activate my SIM against the new account. Nothing worked.

After an hour and a half or so of this experience—which occurred via a chat window—he finally gave up. He was going to escalate this to a tier-2 support rep. Google took my problem very seriously, I was told. I would be contacted “immediately.”

On September 21, a full week later, I finally heard back from Project Fi. “Thank you for your patience,” the email began.

Hm.

This was my emailed reply.

I’m not patient. I was told this was a priority and that someone would get back to me immediately. That was a week ago.

Since then, I’ve activated the existing SIM on my old Gmail account, which worked. And I proactively ordered a new SIM kit, which I’ll try to activate on my new (Thurrott.com) account. But I’m traveling for work twice in the next few weeks, once internationally, and I had really hoped to be able to use my new number by then. I expected this to be up and working two weeks ago. Or more, actually.

So … thanks. But this support experience has been non-existent so far. Hopefully, I’ll just figure it out for myself.

Lashing out at support maybe isn’t fair, but then I was told this was going to happen quickly. And as I told them, I had basically just decided to keep the SIM on my Gmail account, which worked: The SIM activated, as it had done in the past, on that account. (So much for the first support guy’s claim of moving the SIM to Thurrott.com.)

And with regards to that SIM kit, good luck finding a place on the Project Fi website to order that. Ironically, you need to use Google Search to find it. Which I did.

Two days after that email exchange, I flew to Orlando for Microsoft Ignite. I did what I’ve done on many trips, which is use my iPhone as my primary cellphone on my AT&T phone number, and use my Pixel XL for photos.

I flew home from Orlando on Wednesday, September 27. The Project Fi SIM kit—not sure where the “kit” comes from, it’s just a SIM on a cardboard card—was supposed to arrive around Friday, September 29. And I was going to fly to Japan on Monday, October 2. So even if the SIM card did arrive on schedule, there was no way I was going to risk traveling that far with a phone whose number may or may not work for phone calls or texting. So I resolved to head to Japan without making any changes, to be safe.

As it turns out, I canceled my trip to Japan: I’ve been sick for two weeks, and traveling for 12 hours on a plane didn’t seem smart. This happened coincidentally on the same day, Thursday, September 28, that the Project Fi SIM card arrived.

And you know what that means: I could finally make the switch to Android official by porting my old AT&T number over to Project Fi and use my Pixel XL as my primary phone. And it was “only” 17 days after I first intended to make this work.

My plan was to turn off the phone, swap the SIMs, and restart it. See whether I could just sign-in with Thurrott.com on the new SIM. Based on my previous experiences with this, I figured it would never work. So part two of my plan involved resetting the phone and seeing if it worked then. I’d pick up again with Project Fi support if not.

But it did work. When the phone booted up, it logged right into my new account. I made a phone call and it appeared to come from the right (formerly AT&T) phone number. I made a text message, and it worked. I even received an email from AT&T, within minutes, telling me that the switch had occurred.

Could it be? Could it be that easy?

Nope. I don’t get to have nice things.

I could send text messages, yes. What wasn’t working was receiving text messages.

Even odder, when I looked at Google Inbox on my PC—not on my phone, on my PC—I saw little pop-up Hangouts windows on top, with those incoming text messages. I was sending messages using Android Messages, the default SMS/MMS app. But incoming text messages were coming through on Hangouts. (On the phone too, though I wasn’t seeing them because Hangouts notifications were disabled.)

Now, I don’t use Hangouts. And receiving and sending text messages from two different apps is, shall we say, inconvenient. Too, Google is officially killing SMS support in Hangouts, though in a complicated coincidence, not for Project Fi users. Meaning, if I had to, I could use Hangouts for everything. It would work.

But I don’t want to use Hangouts. Am not clear why the phone would have made such a change. So I started Googling.

If you look at Settings in Hangouts, you’ll see that there is an SMS page. It was configured correctly, as “SMS disabled,” and the system SMS app was set, also correctly, to Android Messages.

But as it turns out, there is are account-specific settings that are related specifically to Project Fi. They’re a bit hard to find: You select the account in Hangouts settings (Thurrott.com in my case) and then scroll down … and there it is: There’s a Project Fi calls and SMS section in there. And Messages was enabled. When I disabled that, everything worked: Now, text messages come and go through the app I want to use.

It took me over 24 hours to find that option, by the way. But I feel like I’ve belabored this story enough.

Humorously, Google will announce the phone I’ll be using next in just four days. Hopefully, the process of switching phones on this account will be nothing like what I went through here. And given my past experience switching from the Nexus 6P to the Pixel XL on Project Fi, I have reason to be optimistic.

Right?

 

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