How Project Fi killed my Google Voice setup

Get a Nexus 5X they said. Sign up for Project Fi for a month to get a discount, they said. Now I'm hosed.

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Oh no!: Jason Perlow

Over the last week, I've been engaged in a usability experiment which I've dubbed the Smartphone Survival Test.

Smartphone survival test

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Over the course of a month, I'm going to determine if I can use several different inexpensive Android handsets interchangeably as a viable replacement to what I am using now, an Apple iPhone 6S.

During the hardware selection process I received a lot of feedback from readers and peers that it would be a good idea to have the Google Nexus 5X (made by LG) included as one of the smartphones in the mix.

While the phone normally goes for $349 retail in a 16GB configuration, it is currently being offered for $199 ($249 for the 32GB model) if you try out Google's Project Fi service for a month.

Project Fi is a somewhat different approach to wireless services in that Google is using a combination of public Wi-Fi access points and leveraging Sprint and T-Mobile's cellular networks to provide overall coverage. It also is an international service so if you travel frequently, you don't get charged extra for roaming out of country.

The minimum Project Fi plan you can buy is 1GB of data and unlimited text/voice, which costs $30. So if you plan to immediately terminate service and use your own SIM card on your existing carrier instead, you will have gotten the phone at a $150 discount, as no minimum activation time is required.

That's not bad at all -- in theory. I ordered the 32GB version for $249 and bought the $20 per month unlimited voice/text plan and the 3GB per month data plan for $30 ($50 inclusive), which you can either ratchet down after the first billing period or terminate service altogether.

If you have any leftover data at the end of the month, it gets refunded at a rate of one cent per megabyte, which is nice. That being said it doesn't seem clear whether it makes sense to buy the 1GB of data for $10 and pay for overages at $10 per gigabyte, or buy the 3GB data plan for $30 and get refunded on unused data, or if partially unused overages get refunded.

So far I like Google's Project Fi, at least conceptually. However coverage where I live can be spotty. This isn't much of a surprise as Sprint and T-Mobile isn't great in my town to begin with, and why AT&T is my regular carrier.

If I had known more about what I was getting into, I wouldn't have signed up for Project Fi using the Gmail account I have had for twelve years, the one that was attached to my Google Voice account.

Instead, I would have created a new Gmail address specifically for the purpose of activating Project Fi service, then canceling it after a month. More about this in a bit.

Regardless of the coverage issues, what I don't like most about Project Fi is that it is not friendly to people who already are Google Voice customers.

Google Voice is a service I have been using since it was announced in 2009. It provides a universal phone number and visual voicemail inbox with text transcription that can be used with any cellphone, regardless of who your actual wireless carrier is and whose brand of cell phone you have.

It also works with land lines and VOIP phones that are hardware or software-based, such as OOMA/Vonage and Skype for Business.

I had one New Jersey-based Google Voice number for seven years. I kept it even since moving to Florida because it was a convenient way for me to give out a single phone number and for anyone to be able to reach me regardless of what phone I was using at the time. I've had as many as four or five numbers linked to it at a time that it could forward calls and texts to.

To everyone that called me this setup was completely transparent, I had one phone number, and that was it.

I could also access my call history and create and retrieve SMS texts all from a single app on my smartphone or tablet, or even via a web browser. I could also can set number block lists, which was extremely useful when I got marketing and robocalls and no longer wished to be bothered by these callers anymore.

For many of us millions of people that use it, Google Voice was and is a magical service.

However, Google Voice is also an aging service. Google hasn't put much in terms of continuing investment into it, and other than minor bugfixes the apps haven't been updated in a long time on iOS and Android.

It is also a given that at some point, Google will turn it off and the service will likely stop working, or we are going to be migrated to something else.

Well, we now know what that service is going to be. It's Project Fi.

Project Fi has many, but not all of the same features as Google Voice. It has call and text forwarding and it has visual voicemail and text transcription. It doesn't have the same comprehensive call blocking logic yet and the web user interface is limited compared to Google Voice.

These features also do not work yet:

  • Spam filtering.
  • Call recording.
  • Call switch.
  • Caller ID (incoming).
  • Conference calling on the fly.
  • Text message to email (Text forwarding).
  • Automatic blocking of outgoing caller ID (Anonymous caller ID).

But this is the key issue: It also does not run on just any Android phone or iOS yet. Right now, it only works with the LG Nexus 5X, the Huawei Nexus 6P and the original Motorola Nexus 6.

Which is why every Google Voice customer still has not been migrated to it yet.

This is the bottom line -- as an existing Google Voice user, you're not going to like the migration path to Project Fi as it exists today.

If you move to Project Fi on your existing Gmail account -- which is linked to everything you do within Google's ecosystem -- you will lose Google Voice. Period.

There are places in which this is fairly well-documented, such as in this official document here and by our own former ZDNet mobile columnist and current Googler, Kevin Tofel here, almost a year ago.

Lots of articles have been written about this since last summer when the service went into limited testing. Tons.

That's all well and good, but in my case, I didn't know about this until the actual damage was done.

I didn't get the memo. Or rather, I got a memo, but it was misinterpreted. And I suspect others far less technical than I are going to misinterpret it as well and then it will be too late.

Part of this is due to how I interacted with the on-boarding process. I decided to sign up with Project Fi and buy the Nexus 5X from my existing smartphone while I was out to dinner with my wife.

We were waiting for our sushi order. She started looking at Facebook on her iPhone, and I ordered the Nexus. Hey, it happens. After twenty years of marriage, not every dinner out results in engaging conversation with your spouse. Sometimes you're just hungry.

I did not wait until I got home because I wanted to get the order out while Google could process it during regular business hours on the west coast.

During the ordering process. Project Fi asks you if you want to port your existing Google Voice number, or get issued a new number.

Imagine my thought process. "Oh crap, I don't want to port my Google Voice number. I want them to leave my Google Voice number the hell alone. I want them to issue me a new number."

Actually I didn't think "hell", I had a different word in my head.

What's confusing about this is that you assume your Google Voice number and services will be left intact, just as if you went and bought a new cell phone at a different carrier than the one you are already using.

When you do this at a traditional carrier, they also typically give you the option of porting your existing number. If you choose not to do this, they issue you a new number. At which point you can choose to terminate service on your old carrier, or keep paying for it.

Here is the problem -- you can only have one virtual phone number associated with any Google account. Doesn't matter if it is Google Voice, or Project Fi.

One email, one phone number. Period.

So what happened to me? Well, when I got my Nexus 5X and the Project Fi SIM in the mail yesterday, I activated my Project Fi service, and my Google Voice number died.

Gone. Kaput. Seven years of phone number use. Finished. Everyone who knows to contact me through that phone number now no longer can.

Now, it turns out that if this happens to you, and if you act quickly enough, you can contact Project Fi tech support (which is quite good) and they can try to move your old Google Voice number to a new Gmail account. By law Google has to keep the number for 30 days until it has to actually be released.

[Edit 4/9: Google technical support has been able to restore the Google Voice number to an alternate GMail account.]

If you are an existing Google Voice customer, here are the two paths to Project Fi which I consider the least painful:

1) Have them port your existing Google Voice phone number to Project Fi.

This moves over all your forwards and call history and voicemails to the new system. Yes, you'll miss out on a few features this way, as documented above.

If you pause billing at any point, your universal phone number with phone forwarding will stop working, including texts and voicemail.

This is the least complicated migration path but it isn't cost-free -- keep in mind you can only pause billing for 3 months at a time, per billing cycle..

If you intend to use Fi as a Google Voice replacement, you are also committed to spending $240 a year ($20 a month for basic service.).

Many people might balk at this. I'm not crazy about it, so I am going to cancel my service. This means releasing the Project Fi number, which means I have the option of joining Google Voice again, on my original Gmail account or on a new one.

I think I'm going to use a new one.

2) Sign up for a new Gmail address, associate a credit card with it, and buy your phone and Project Fi service with that.

You can always forward your existing Gmail to this address, or vice-versa. This allows you to keep your Google Voice as-is, and if you want to forward Google Voice calls to your Fi number, you can (You can't forward a Fi to a another Fi, or a Fi to a Google Voice, however).

It's clunky, but it works and is the least disruptive and has no cost associated with it. It is the option I personally would have chosen had I not done what I did.

Have you migrated from Google Voice to Project Fi recently? Talk Back and Let Me Know.