Google Fi suddenly strikes
Evacuated from Ukraine to Spain with Covid, Google Fi suddenly cuts off my service.
Here I will describe another automated action by Google: its human aspect, and a makeshift technical solution.
In September I flew from Boston to Istanbul, and then eventually made it to Ukraine, across the Black Sea. All this time I was extolling Google Fi to my ATT and Verizon-carrying tech friends: I could seamlessly hop between the countries, on their Unlimited Plus plan for around $80 per month!
When I was in Ukraine and as the rumors of the impending war were getting more and more persistent, I got a fairly bad covid. After a week with persistent temperatures of 101.5 (during normal flus my temperature always fluctuated, but there it was like in a thermostat, constant) and excruciating headaches I started worrying that if the war actually started, the AC heater in the huge old weird apartment that I was renting would be turned off with the electricity and the internet. That was actually my primary immediate concern: that I was sick like a dog, and I would freeze. Then my temperature suddenly dropped. I waited for 2 days and bought a non-stop ticket to Barcelona. The night before the flight, I took my temperature, as I was packing my thermometer with the medicines. It was 100 again, but I decided to check at 6am in the morning and fly anyway if it’s normal. It was, and in 7 hours I and my girlfriend were wobbling in Barcelona.
I was gradually getting better and then suddenly I felt sick again, after about 10 days, when we’ve made it to the sun of Andalusia, to recover. Fever again, snot, sore throat. In addition, I developed two very strange problems: a filled-up thyroglossal cyst on my neck and another one in my leg, such that the whole leg was getting inflamed. I dragged myself to an ER in Sevilla, they had to cut the abscess open and to leave the wound to drain. The resident told me that the wound needed to be left open and packed every day. I went there for three days with fever, then she left for vacation and showed me how to pack it myself, in case I will have problems finding a hospital.
After days like this, I started developing excruciating headaches. Went to the hospital again, and they suspected long Covid. Then I went to the Oficina de Extranjería and applied for an extension of my 90 days default Schengen stay. It was then that Google Fi suddenly decided to strike. I was out buying food, when I noticed that Google Maps became offline. Here we switch to the technical part.
Getting cut-off from my US number was my primary concern. It was used with my three banks, RobinHood, Coinbase, a couple of other financial apps, Airbnb and with Uber. Even though I used a 2FA authenticator app whenever I could, occasionally and especially abroad most of these services log you out and then send you a verification SMS to log back in. While I was away, my sink in San Francisco leaked, and I was constantly on the phone with the contractor, that was tearing off the kitchen floor. When I made it to the hotel, the first thing I tried was to connect to various cellular networks.
After that, with a migraine I contacted Google Fi via chat:
Suddenly (no changes on my end) lost data in Spain. Cellular still works. Many networks that were available before now say "Forbidden"- cannot connect to any other than Vodafone ES. Vodafone ES lost data. See attached screenshot Google Support You’re connected with agent Lohitha.1:32 PM Welcome to Google Support. My name is Lohitha. How are you today? Lohitha · 1:32 PM hi 1:32 PM L Hi Xxxx! Please make a note of this case ID: 5-xxxx for future reference. Lohitha · 1:32 PM I described the problem: I suddenly lost data connection today and cannot reconnect to data 1:32 PM L I see that you are facing issues with the international data connection. I will help you to the best of my expertise. Thanks for the details. Lohitha · 1:33 PM In the screenshot, all networks that now say Forbidden were available until today 1:34 PM L Okay. Are you on active military duty or a government employee Lohitha · 1:35 PM no 1:35 PM L Thank you for the details. Lohitha · 1:35 PM I have checked the details and see that your international data capability is suspended. Lohitha · 1:39 PM Why? 1:39 PM L As per our Terms of Service, Fi must be primarily used in the United States (territories not included) and isn’t intended for extended international use. If you plan to stay abroad, we recommend you use a local carrier until you return to the US. Lohitha · 1:39 PM I had covid and I was delayed here I have documents that show that I have had covid recently 1:40 PM L Xxxx, I completely understand. I would have definitely helped you with this if there would have been any other alternative options. Lohitha · 1:42 PM I am returning to the US in 2 weeks: I even had to ask for a visa extension because I am sick. I hope you won't cut off my service because I have Covid? I can upload my doctor's letter and a positive PCR test 1:44 PM L Unfortunately, we don't have an option to provide exceptions for covid affected persons. I hope you understand. Your international data roaming capabilities are automatically reinstated once we determine that your services (data, talk and text) are primarily used in the United States (territories not included) as per our Terms of Service. Lohitha · 1:45 PM I am sick and you cut off my phone without warning! There was no warning whatsoever 1:45 PM L Xxxxx, you must have received an email before 30 days as a remainder. Lohitha · 1:46 PM I have never received any email. Nothing 1:46 PM L Please check if you have blocked the system automated emails. Lohitha · 1:46 PM I have not 1:46 PM L Google Fi will send an email before 30 days. Lohitha · 1:47 PM I have never seen the email And I cannot find it in my gmail account: I am looking now 1:47 PM L I understand. Please check your gmail settings if you have any restrictions. Lohitha · 1:48 PM I did not set any restrictions. Since this is about disconnecting my phone, you could have called me or at least sent a text! can you please reinstate the service for 2 weeks? I am cut off from my banking, everything And I am sick 1:49 PM L Xxxx, it is an automated email system. Unfortunately, we don't have an option to send you a text or call. I hope you understand. I would have certainly helped you if there is any alternative option. It is my pleasure to assist you today! Have a good one! Lohitha left the chat.
Here you are, potentially cut off from your banking, your US contacts, sick with Covid. At this point it’s important to assess the damage and to understand that you are in a position of weakness with Google. Do not try to argue that they should have clearly spelled their rules for the length of foreign stay on signup, instead of marketing “works in 150 countries”, or notify you prominently about an impending shutoff: e.g. as a push notification from their mandatory Google Fi app (my Fi app still does not show any status message or warning), or send you a text message or perhaps even make an automated call. Had they offered me to pay $400/mo (hey Google marketing!), I would have gladly acquiesced, given the grim situation. With any pushback, you are probably risking further escalation and a retaliation: they can next shut off your Gmail, your entire Google account, you’d loose your phone address book, etc. Instead one should try to find a makeshift solution, till you get back to Verizon / ATT in the States.
I noticed that I have not lost my US number. The phone could still connect to Vodafone ES over the voice cellular network, and I could send texts. Since there was no data connection, even when you force a manual carrier choice in the SIM options in the settings, the phone would get off Vodafone every couple of minutes and try to hop between other (now forbidden) carriers, so i had an intermittent voice-only connection that worked for 5 minutes out of each 10 minutes. I realized that they probably have not taken away my phone number, that I have had for 15+ years, and that if I keep paying them, I can probably preserve it till I get back. That was a huge relief, because that meant I was not going to be cut off from my money abroad.
I recalled that I while in Ukraine, I got a notification that I could sync all my calls and messages from the Fi web interface. That notification, unlike a data shutoff warning, was actually sent by Google. So I went to the settings in my Pixel’s Google Messaging app, then chose Advanced and started the sync. In about 2 hours on WiFi, my 2000 SMSs and the call history synced. Then next morning I went to a Moviestar cellular store and bought a SIM card for 15€, that includes 15GB of data, unlimited calls in Spain and 400min of international calls for one month and works in the entire EU zone.
After I inserted the card, I could no longer send texts to a US number from the Messenger app, because it was trying to use the Vodafone cellular network. So then I tried switching the Messenger from SMS to the data mode (Settings → “Enable chat features (Use WiFi or data for messaging when available)”). Toggling that produced a pop-up that I had to disable the web sync, which i enabled the day before. I disabled it, choosing the option to keep the data. That was a bad mistake, as I explain later. After enabling the chat features, I sent an SMS and voila- it got sent. Then just in case, I sent an SMS to another person, and that one failed to send. I realized that the first person was on Android and the second one was on iOS.
At that point I decided to switch the Messenger back to SMS, re-sync and rely only on the messages web interface. After about 15 hours of re-sync (in the web interface got stuck with a message Synced 1645 messages), i started digging around on Reddit. I found threads where people were waiting for this sync for 30 days, while the Messenger app was responsible for 30% of the battery drain. I stopped the sync, and this time chose the option to delete all synced data. Then I cleared the phone storage for the Messenger app, deleted all my SMSs and then it resynced in 10 minutes.
Then I allowed browser notifications for messenger.google.com and started testing the combination of the Vodafone SIM while using my Fi number from the web. It was semi-usable but i discovered several annoying bugs. Browser notifications worked only when a tab was open in the background. That includes phone calls to my US number. It took me a while to figure out how to make the in-browser calls use the earpiece rather than the default phone speaker, which is nearly impossible to hear while I am outside. The native Android sound settings for the browser playback only gives you the option to switch between the speaker and the previously connected Bluetooth devices. There's a speaker settings cog ⚙️ on the Messenger page, but the “Call audio” drop-down only contains one “Default” option, which is the speaker. It turns out you can do it under the “Microphone” drop-down: somehow that also switches the speaker to earpiece. Surprisingly I found that the last state of this setting affects Android 12 system-wide, including YouTube Vanced playback. I had to go back to we messenger and toggle the mic settings to Default to be able to use YouTube normally again.
The final problem was that in a few days I suddenly lost Google Fi VPN. When I log into my PayPal account from a Spanish IP, PayPal locks me out from money transfers and I have to make a phone call from my US number to PayPal support and have a lengthy conversation, that I am abroad. I still cannot figure out how to reactivate Fi VPN on a non-Fi SIM. It was possible on WiFi data, so I do not see why it should not be possible on another SIM's data, as long as I am still a paying Fi “customer”…