by Larry Magid

This post first appeared in the Mercury News

Google Fi cellular service has been around since 2015, but it just got some new features that make it more family-friendly.

Like nearly all cellular carriers, Google Fi has long offered family discounts if you have two or more people sharing an account. But, on Wednesday, the company announced new family features to “help your family stay safer and build healthy habits.” These include blocking calls and texts from strangers, allowing parents to set content filters and screen time limits and the ability to monitor and budget data usage.

Google Fi is also more closely integrated into Google’s Family Link app, which works on all Android phones and with all cellular services. Google Fi’s new family-friendly features, along with Google’s Family Link app, are free, and Family Link doesn’t require you to have a Google Fi account. Other carriers offer parental controls but may charge an extra fee for these services.

New features

Google Fi’s blocking service prevents incoming calls and texts from people who are not in the child’s (or adult’s) contact list. While anyone, including adults, may benefit from this service, it can be especially helpful for younger children. Parents want kids to be able to communicate with family members and close friends but not with random people, telemarketers, robocalls and — potentially — bullies or worse. As per adults, I urge caution about using blocking services as they might block calls from doctors’ offices, emergency announcements, companies you are doing business with, colleagues, friends with a new phone number and others whom you probably do want to hear from.

The data-use monitoring feature is especially important if you don’t have an unlimited data plan. Watching videos or playing certain types of games can eat up a lot of data, and if you’re paying $10 per gigabyte (as with Google Fi’s basic plan), that can add up to real money. This tool lets parents regulate their children’s data or — for that matter — their own. It only applies to cellular data, not WiFi, so if you’re home or have access to a public WiFi spot, you can avoid charges by making sure WiFi is turned on. Google Fi automatically connects to your home WiFi network (assuming it’s been configured) but not all services do so — regardless of which service you use — make sure WiFi is turned on to not only avoid charges but — in most cases — get faster internet access.

Family Link 

In addition to the tools included with Google Fi, Google also offers its free Family Link service. You don’t need to be a Google Fi customer or own a Google-branded phone to use Family Link. It works on nearly all Android phones and cellular carriers.

Family Link consists of a pair of apps. The child’s Family Link app is installed on the child’s Android phone while the parent’s app, which lets them manage their children’s smartphone use, runs on both Android and iPhones and on the web at Fi.Google.com. There are lots of low-cost Android phones available, which makes them a good choice for children who may be prone to losing or breaking their phone.

Once installed, the parent can use their own phone to see which apps their child uses and for how long, with the ability to block any app or set a time limit. If a child tries to download a new app, they’ll be told they need parental permission, and the parent will get the request in their Family Link app.

Family Link will block “adult” sites in the Chrome browser that are sexually explicit or violent, though Google correctly points out that no filter is perfect. If a child lands on a blocked site, they can send a request to the parent (or ask in person) to allow access to a blocked site. Parents can also block sites that may not already be blocked by Google.

Family Link’s web filtering only works on Google’s Chrome browser, but some Android phones may have other browsers. Or, with parental permission, a child could download Microsoft Edge, Firefox or any number of browsers even with Family Link. As an experiment, I used my “child” phone to download the Microsoft Edge browser. It required me to ask permission to install Edge, and, once approved, Edge worked on the child’s phone. Adult sites that were blocked by default on Chrome came up on Edge and would also presumably work on other browsers that a parent allowed their child to use on the phone.

Another important Family Link tool is the ability to locate their child’s phone, which can relieve a great deal of worry if you’re not sure where your child is. Even relatively relaxed parents might want the reassurance of knowing that their kids are home from school or an otherwise safe place.

Simple pricing

While Google Fi isn’t necessarily the least expensive option for all usage patterns, its pricing is simpler to understand than many other cellular services. It starts at $20 for one line with unlimited text and calls, and $10 per gigabyte of cellular data. On all plans, data is free if you’re connected to WiFi. The $20 plan works well for people who use very little data or who mostly use data when connected to WiFi, which, during the pandemic, includes many of us. For $70 a month, one person gets unlimited data, though data after 22 GB may start to slow down.  For two people, it’s $60 a line unlimited or $18 with the pay as you go data plan. Like other cellular family plans, it gets progressively cheaper per line as you add more people.

One thing I like about Google Fi is its international rates, which include unlimited free data and texting when roaming to most countries along with a 20-cents-per-minute phone calls. The service also offers free international calls to more than 50 countries from the U.S. with other countries as low as 1 cent a minute, so it’s a good option for many who have family or friends overseas.

Although Google Fi works on both Android and iPhones, some of the new features work only on Android phones.

Shop around

Unlike AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile, Google Fi doesn’t operate its own cellular network but piggybacks on other networks (in the U.S., it’s typically T-Mobile). That makes it a Mobile Virtual Operator or MVNO, and it’s not alone. Mint Mobile, Boost Mobile, Cricket Wireless and Consumer Cellular are other examples of MVNOs, and they often have lower-cost pricing plans than the major carriers.

Before settling on any carrier, shop around.  Depending on your usage and number of lines, you might find a better deal from other carriers — in some cases even the major ones. Wired has a summary of low-cost plans at wired.com/story/guide-to-mvno-phone-plans/

A study released Wednesday by the Family Online Safety Institute shows that parents, especially of young children, want good tools to help manage their children’s internet use. The study found that 79% of parents use controls currently or in the past, while 92% of parents have either formal or informal rules established with their child. Among parents of kids ages 7 to 11, 63% say that blocking adult/mature content is essential, including videos and websites. I recommend parents have a conversation with their child before using any monitoring or filtering technology, so they not only know it’s there but understand why it’s there. As children mature and show they are using technology responsibly, parents should consider loosening or removing these controls.

Disclosure: Google provides financial support to ConnectSafely