Project Fi in The Netherlands: Seamless, Inexpensive Connectivity

Posted on November 20, 2016 by Paul Thurrott in Android, Cloud, Mobile with 20 Comments

Project Fi in The Netherlands: Seamless, Inexpensive Connectivity

I was able to experience the magic of Project Fi cellular access in Europe for a second time this past week. And yes, it held up nicely.

As you may recall, I finally experienced the magic of Google’s Project Fi service internationally over the summer when we did a shorter-than-usual home swap in Paris. I already knew Project Fi was amazing domestically, but that trip showed me that one can now achieve seamless voice, text, and data access internationally, just as we do here at home. This service really has transformed international travel.

Elsas, a favorite cafe in Amsterdam.

Elsas, a favorite cafe in Amsterdam.

So when the opportunity to travel to The Netherlands in November came, I knew that Project Fi would be the way to go. But having recently decided to return the Google Pixel XL because it simply doesn’t measure up to either the iPhone 7 Plus or its Nexus 6P predecessor, I knew I’d have to make that change first: I’d been using the Project Fi network here at home with the Pixel.

On that note, my trip didn’t get off to a good start.

Amsterdam.

Cloudy day in Amsterdam.

Not that it was Google’s or Project Fi’s fault: As part of my pre-trip packing ritual the night before my trip, I swapped the Project Fi SIM card from the Pixel XL to last year’s Nexus 6P. And in the middle of this delicate operation, the tiny card popped out of the Nexus 6P’s tray, hung in the air for a moment, and then fell between the cushion and arm of the couch.

No problem, I thought. But as I fumble-fingered the SIM card, which was just visible in the gap next to the cushion, and then watched it fall into the couch after I removed that cushion, panic set in. And that panic only intensified as I realized that the SIM card had made its way into the structure of the couch’s arm somehow, an area surrounded by 3/4-inch thick wood with only the tiniest of slot-like openings. Openings through which I couldn’t fit my hands let alone see inside.

But it had to be in there. So try to imagine the scene when my wife returned home from picking up our daughter at whatever activity she was at, only to discover our couch flipped upside down in the middle of the living room floor with its fabric under-cover slashed open in three places because I was looking for a way inside. And then it got worse—for her, at least—because the first thing I said to her was, “we have a jigsaw, right?”

My handiwork. No one is proud of this.

My handiwork. No one is proud of this.

The thing is, I knew we had the saw. But I wanted to make her a partner is this coming destruction of property. I showed her the roughly 6-inch by 4-inch area on the couch arm that I wanted to cut open, explaining that even though I couldn’t see the SIM card, or hear it as I shook the couch, I knew it had to be in there. I promised to staple/screw it back on when we got back from Europe. And I would need her smaller hand to get in there and find the SIM.

Which we did: After cutting the hole in the couch’s wooden structure, I peered inside with a flashlight and saw the tiny white SIM card sitting in there, exactly where I knew it had to be. So mission accomplished. Or something.

Amsterdam at dusk.

Amsterdam at dusk.

Heading to Europe the following night, I continued to use my iPhone as usual here in the States, and then again on the flight (in airplane mode) for music, podcasts, and audiobooks. Because the iPhone is using my primary cell phone number, I actually left the cellular access on while we were away just in case, but turned off data roaming. So I’ll see a small bill from the several text messages and (unanswered) phone calls I received while in Europe over the past week.

But the Nexus 6P with its Project Fi SIM came to life as we were touching down at Amsterdam’s ginormous Schipol airport. And it stayed on and activated the entire time we were away. I used it as my only phone. I used it to take some fairly incredible photos, which was no surprise. And I shared the connection again with my daughter, as I had in Paris back in August, because her Verizon-based iPhone, for some reason, couldn’t connect to the cellular networks there. (We’re still trying to figure that one out.)

Our hotel in Haarlem.

Our hotel in Haarlem.

The experience was much like it was this past summer in Paris: Seamless data connectivity, phone calling and text messaging just like back at home. And, best of all, for basically the same price I pay back at home.

Let’s break it down.

I subscribe to the basic Project Fi plan, which is $30 per month/ That gives me unlimited domestic phone calling and texting and 1 GB of data. Thanks to Fi’s reasonable pricing, I then pay $10 per additional GB, but not in $10 chunks. That is, if I were to use an additional 600 MB of data, I’d pay $6, not $10.

Dam square in Amsterdam.

Dam square in Amsterdam.

I disabled Airplane mode on the morning of Friday, November 11, and then re-enabled it as I was leaving Amsterdam early afternoon on Saturday, November 19, about 8 days later. During that time, I used a total of 2.58 GB of data. So my total cost of data was $25.82, though I only actually paid an additional $15.82 because $10/1 GB of that is built into my plan.

I also racked up $2.33 in additional charges related to international calls. Most phone calls via Project Fi are 20 cents per minute, and I see a few of those. But I also have one call that was charged at $1.53 per minute, apparently because it went out over Wi-Fi. I’m going to look into that one.

Haarlem. The Nexus 6P's panorama capabilities are slow and ponderous.

Haarlem. The Nexus 6P’s panorama capabilities are slow and ponderous.

(Not yet on the bill are the couple of phone calls I had with my wife once she returned home to Boston. Fi does a better job than, say, AT&T in keeping the bill up-to-date, but some things will still lag by a few days. So I could have another $5 or so in phone charges to deal with. Whatever it is, it’s reasonable.)

A couple of other notes.

Amsterdam by boat.

Amsterdam by boat.

I wasn’t sure how Project Fi would handle me moving the account and SIM card between the two phones (from the Pixel XL to the Nexus 6P). But it did so seamlessly and without issue. In the Fi app, you can see that two phones had used the card during this billing period, but there’s no additional charge. No problems there at all.

I never did see a 4G or LTE connection in the Netherlands: The signal shifted between H (for HSPA, a sort of “3G+” network that some carriers market as 4G) and 3G. But these speeds were good enough for everything I needed to do. Including, by the way, tethering my laptop: Twice on this trip, I was unable to uploaded photos for Thurrott.com over the Wi-Fi network at the hotel for some reason, and it both cases I easily did so when tethered to my phone’s Project Fi coverage. Problem solved.

Beautiful Haarlem.

Beautiful Haarlem.

Put simply, I’ll pay somewhere between $18.15 and about $25, depending on where the as-yet uncharged phone calls fall, for the privilege of using my own phone like a phone while traveling for 8 days in Europe. I never had to micromanage the connection because I was worried about hitting data limits, and I never had to worry about phone calls or texts. It is so wonderfully freeing not to have to worry about such things, to be able to just use your phone like you would at home.

I know that Project Fi isn’t the only inexpensive way to bring your own phone number to Europe. But Fi has some other issues that make it less enticing to some. Key among them is that you must use a modern Google handset—a Nexus 6, 6P, 5X, Pixel, or Pixel XL—with the service. That means that I couldn’t use my AT&T-based iPhone 7 Plus in Europe. At least without paying astronomical fees.

Amsterdam by boat.

Amsterdam by boat.

That worked out, in a way, as the Nexus 6P takes better photos than the iPhone, period. (It takes better photos than the Pixel XL as well.) And as was the case with our earlier Paris trip, I continue to be amazed by the quality of the vacation photos I can take with this device. And that’s true both on bright, sunny days, where virtually any modern smartphone can perform well, or on the dank, wet, and dark days and nights that typify The Netherlands at this time of year.

Cute Haarlem neighborhood.

Cute Haarlem neighborhood.

Still, I missed the iPhone for its superior performance, reliability, simplicity, and battery life. And looking forward, I’d like to figure out a way I can get any device online inexpensively while traveling internationally, and not be limited to whatever small list of devices works with Project Fi.

But that’s for the future. As of today, I just saved myself a ton of money and—my couch incident notwithstanding—a ton of stress by using Google Project Fi in Europe. And I couldn’t be happier about that.

 

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