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Jun 152013
 
 June 15, 2013  Posted by  Features, Hot Deals, Media, Services, Tech Talk
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One of my complaints about Republic when I originally wrote this article was the high price, for the relatively lackluster Motorola Defy. They have since made some adjustments to their purchase pricing on the phone and added additional phones.

Save on the plan: Purchase the handset now at $199 (formerly $249) and service is $19 a month

Save on handset: Purchase the handset now at $79 (formerly $99) and service is $29 a month

They will also credit $50 off for each line added to an account. These discounts make the $19 a month even more compelling.

And a newer, cooler phone? Nothing to report beyond Republic’s statement that they will have new phones later this year. You can rest assured that we will be among the first to let you know!

Wi-Fi is nearly everywhere. At the office, the same backbone that supports your Wi-Fi probably also carries your phone calls on a format called VOIP (voice over Internet protocol). Talking on the phone over the Internet … a novel idea.

Why can’t I do that on my cellphone? Well, here is the dirty little secret the carriers don’t want you to know. You can.

Cellphone providers aren’t interested telling you how to make Wi-Fi calls because when you’re using Wi-Fi, you’re not using their expensive service. This might lead you  to the conclusion that you don’t need to spend all that money with them.

Apps have long facilitated Internet calls — think Skype and Talkatone — but most of us don’t want to have to work that hard to make a simple phone call. And we also need to be able to make calls when we’re not in a Wi-Fi hotspot.

A new company has created a system in which the phone does all the worrying about whether you’re in a Wi-Fi zone or need to use a cellular network. This service has the potential to save you 80% off your cellphone bill, charging only $19 a month for complete cellphone coverage.

Republic Wireless wants to be the Robin Hood of cellphone companies. It isn’t  stealing minutes from the rich, but at $19 a month for unlimited talk, text and data, you might jump to that conclusion.

Go back and read that last sentence again and do a little bit of mental math. $19 a month is $228 a year. There was a point in time when my monthly cellular bill was higher than that. So, what is the catch? That’s a great question.

A different kind of cellular company

Republic Wireless is a North Carolina company owned by Bandwidth.com. It has several different business divisions, all of which focus on communications or data in some form. Its technology is in use by Skype, Google Talk and Vonage, so it knows a little bit about this kind of stuff. The company did some brainstorming and some research and came to the conclusion that most people have Wi-Fi available to them at least half the time. Why can’t we use that Wi-Fi for our cellphone calls, as well? All it takes is a phone that is smart enough to switch back and forth for you, so you don’t have to worry about it.

Of course, nobody makes a phone like that. So, the first step Republic had to make was to create custom software for its phone so that it would make this switch automatically.

The phone

Republic is on its second generation of hardware and is currently using the Motorola Defy XT as its vehicle for this process.

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The Defy is a mid-range Android smart phone with scratch-proof glass and rubber covers for the headphone and charging ports to make it dust-proof. I have been carrying it around in my pocket with no case and no screen protector. It has lived next to keys, a pocket knife and various bits of tech with no ill effects. This is a strong point in its favor.

From a geek standpoint, the Defy is not exactly bleeding edge. At version 2.3 of the operating software (Ginger Bread, if you are keeping track of your sweets) it is two major versions behind the current 4.2 (Jelly Bean) version. The phone does a serviceable job of web browsing, email and messaging. Having full access to the Google Play software store means there are more than half a million apps that you can install to expand the usefulness of the Defy. You will have to have a Gmail account to do so, but it is free and relatively benign, other than all the data collection Google will do on you. Of course, that is just to “improve your experience,” right?

The Defy is a little weak on battery life, but checks off most of the key tech needs with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, built in A-GPS for navigation and a touch screen that is bright and crisp. The display is a little bigger than the iPhone 4 and a touch smaller than the iPhone 5. Front and rear-facing cameras complete the package with the main camera working at a respectable 5 megapixels. Like all camera phones, it is happiest in higher light situations, but the onboard flash is reasonable in a pinch.

The Defy is a little short on internal memory at 512 MB, but Republic ships the phone with a 4-gigabyte Micro SD card and you can update this to a 32-GB storage card for less than $25. Applications can be moved to the card along with music and video files, which will allow you to carry a lot of media wherever you go.

The service

Got Wi-Fi? Most of us do, and Republic’s Defy will take advantage of it. If you log onto a Wi-Fi network, the software on the phone remembers it and will log itself back onto that network the next time it is in range. The phone handles all of this in the background, including storing relevant passwords.

Sound quality is very good and I have not had to change any settings on any of the Wi-Fi systems I have logged into using the phone. If you are in Wi-Fi range, you will see a green arc in the top bar of the phone’s screen and the call screen will tell you that the call is being made over Wi-Fi.

What if you don’t have Wi-Fi? No fear. Republic has contracted with Sprint for nationwide 3G coverage. The phone will seamlessly switch to this if you are not in a Wi-Fi zone. The phone cannot currently switch during a call, so if you are talking on the phone in your car and walk into the house, it will not switch over to Wi-Fi until the call is finished.

If you start a call on Wi-Fi and walk out the door, your call will be dumped when you hit the edge of your network’s range. Oh well. That is what redial is for, right?

So, what’s the catch?

At $19 a month for unlimited everything, I can already hear you asking me, “what’s the catch?”  Well … there are a couple little issues.

Today, Republic gives you the option of exactly one phone you can use on its system, the previously referenced Motorola Defy. You have to buy the phone from Republic because it has custom firmware to handle the Wi-Fi/cellular network switching. To get that wonderful $19 rate, you are gong to be paying Republic a cool $249 for last year’s phone. This makes your first year of service cost $477, but each year after that, the price drops to a paltry $228 a year. If you looked at my previous cellphone comparison article, you can see how nice a price that is.

Republic gives you the option to buy the phone for $99, which gets you the same unlimited plan, but for $29 a month. Be strong and resist the urge. If you do this, you will be on that $29 plan until you buy a new phone. In 15 months, you will have paid the difference between the $249 and $99 price to them and you will continue to pay that extra $10 a month. If you use that phone on Republic’s system for two years, you’ll end up paying the company $339 for a $249 phone.

While texting is supported on Republic’s network, sending pictures and videos via text is not. This may not be a problem for you. However, if you are providing phone and data for a teenage user, it may cause paroxysms on what a horrible parent you are. It took me about 30 seconds to find a free app called TextNow that allows you to do this on the Defy via a data connection. This is the beauty of a smartphone with a really rich ecosphere of applications.

Another potential pitfall is that Republic has no phone support of any kind. No tech support, no customer service, nobody to whom you can complain. Ever. You can’t even call to order a phone and service; you have to go to the website. This is one way Republic keeps its costs in check to be able to give you that silly price for unlimited everything.

What Republic does have is online support in the form of FAQs, a community forum and email support that will get back to you within 24 hours. Browsing around the forum was refreshing. While there was some typical ranting and complaining, there were also a bunch of helpful customers who would jump into situations and try to help people with issues. Not employees of Republic, mind you — customers. This is a company that engenders some passion in its user base.

If you dive into the Republic pool and become one of those ambassadors for its service, it will even reward you for showing your friends the light! When a friend signs up for service you get a $19 credit on your account. Can you say “FREE MONTH OF SERVICE!”? You can actually do this multiple times a year.

Republic does not support calling to international numbers, only to those in the United States and Canada. However, you could take your phone to Europe and call home over Wi-Fi if you like. Need to call the U.K.? Download Skype and tap away. It works perfectly well on the Defy over its data service.

Conclusion

I am impressed. The service has worked well for me while I have been using it. Call quality has been good and data, while currently limited to 3G speeds, was also solid. It is worth noting that Republic is plotting the release of a 4G phone later this year.

Keep in mind, while you do have to buy the phone, there is no other commitment to Republic. If you hate the service, you can walk away scot-free. But the phone will only work on Republic’s network, so you won’t be able to use it on another network if you do choose to leave.

Republic Wireless is the only company that is doing this kind of hybrid calling service right now. Funny thing about “disruptive” business practices — they tend to disrupt the way business gets done. I spoke to a couple of other companies at a cellular technology industry convention recently that are plotting some similar ideas. As they come to market we will make sure that you are kept up to date.

But today, Republic stands alone and charges a mere $19 a month. For a family of four, once you have paid for the phones you are looking at $76 a month for unlimited talk, text and data. That is the kind of deal that gets my seal of approval.

Jeff Mac

Nearly 15 years ago, Jeff Mac abandoned his career as a journalist to take on the peripatetic and clichéd life of a traveling sales person. In the last 3 years his muse has returned and read him the riot act. He is editor in chief of Restless Tech which focuses on reviews of travel and tech equipment. A Southerner by marriage, he has learned to talk slowly and pass the grits without comment. He focuses on eking every last nickel out of technology and his favorite price is free. With three daughters and three marriages to pay for in the near future this is not optional!

8 comments on “New Wi-Fi service offers $19-a-month cellphone

  1. Fred T. on said:

    I use Google voice on my tablet and home laptop. My building has free wifi so I keep the laptop on (wifi enabled) and with a cheap microphone and built in laptop speakers have a home phone. When at coffee shops etc. where there is WIFI I can use GVoice on my tablet. Ceaper than $19.00 per month….there are other lower cost solutions than the one being promoted in the article.

  2. Trevor on said:

    But Fred, then you don’t get the 3G service once you leave that WiFi umbrella. Then you’ve got nothing.

    All Jeff is doing is a review of a phone service which happens to use WiFi when it is available, which is most of the time free which in turn helps bring the cost of the service down.

    If one is going to keep the phone for more than 2-years (and if the phone can last that long), this would be a great option. I am not an iPhone fiend, so having this phone wouldn’t be a bad option for a ‘smartphone’.

  3. Slyo on said:

    I’ve had this service for over a year now, and let me tell you…IT IS HORRIBLE!!

    The “little” problems are actually a long list of BIG PROBLEMS. SouthpawKB, one of the friendly ambassadors at RW, was kind enough to put together a list to help warn people away from RW because of its lackluster service. I will share that list for those that may be interested.

    1.MMS is not supported – this means no sending pictures/videos/audio clips by text.
    2.Short codes are not supported – those are the interactive texts to 5- and 6-digit numbers, like for paypal/facebook/netflix confirmation, “Voting” for your favorite reality tv show contestant, promos from your local coffee shop.
    3.No Text-to-Email gateway – these are often used by alert systems to send a text to your_phone_number@your_provider.com.
    4.No account suspension – other services offer a vacation hold. Nothing like that exists here.
    5.Your number cannot be changed – if you move to a new area, RW does not change your phone number.
    6.No tethering – the phone cannot be used as a Wi-Fi hotspot.
    7.If you “root” your phone it will void your warranty and RW will not support it any longer. You cannot return a rooted phone under the 30 Day Guarantee.
    8.Dialer cannot be programmed to accept a “pause” or “wait.”
    9.Cannot change the amount of ring-time before the call goes to voicemail:
    10.No international dialing. Calls may only be made to the US and Canada
    11.No porting of a Google Voice number to Republic.
    12.Republic is a VOIP provider (kind of like Vonage), not cellular. When attempting to port out from RW, it is considered a landline, which may limit options.
    13.No transferring of phones to new users or splitting/combining of accounts. No sales of service, though selling phone hardware is OK
    14.No BYOD.
    15.No services in Hawaii, Alaska, or New Hampshire. (Phones will work there, but no local numbers, and you can’t register order a phone to be shipped to those states)
    16.Voicemail has no “envelope” information and very few features.
    17.Voicemail notification is not delivered if phone does not have cellular service.
    18.911’s caller id will be the underlying Sprint number unless the call is over wifi
    19.No X11 number can be dialed, other than 911
    20.RW makes you pay to return the phone if you are not pleased with it within the 30 day risk-free guarantee.
    21.NO customer service/support – They refuse to allow anyone to phone them to get fast, prompt service to resolve problems you may be experiencing with the phone/service, regardless of its urgency.
    (I added these last two as she forget to mention them)

    While some may find the $19/month very alluring, anyone using this service will be forced to make some serious compromises. RW received a thumbs-down rating from Consumer Reports and a similar negative review from the Wall Street Journal. PCMag and LaptopMag gave the phone an “F” rating (50%). Definitely read the reviews over at Yelp.com where you will find secret phone numbers, that the company desperately doesn’t want people to find, to reach an RW employee to get issues resolved in a timely and convenient fashion.

  4. Ashley on said:

    I’ve had RW for about a year and have a vastly different opinion from @Slyo. I need the phone to make calls and send text messages. It does just that, and it does it reasonably well. I actually have fewer dropped calls than I did with Verizon, and honestly, for $19/month they don’t bother me one bit. I *want* a smartphone but I do not feel like I *need* a smartphone. The reason I have RW is because it is cheaper than my previous dumb phone with Verizon. It sounds like Slyo wants the latest and greatest, and RW is simply not a good fit. For frugal late adopters like myself, RW is fantastic.

  5. Richard on said:

    Yea, Slyo has made some points about RW that I’d say 75% of the users already knew going into the service. Anyone frugal enough to get involved with Republic Wireless has probably done a fair amount of research already, and they are looking for a basic plan that allows them to avoid the $100 a month typical smartphone service plan, and still capitalize on having a smartphone. Let’s face it, if you wanted a top notch phone with all the bells and whistles, along with service & support, then you will always pay a premium. If you want a value driven service, with the capability to still have that service include a smartphone, then Republic Wireless is a excellent choice. The bottom line is, you can’t compare a unlimited everything ATT plan with an iPhone 4S @ $120 a month, to a Republic Wireless plan that has unlimited everything with a 2 year old Motorola Defy XT phone @ $19 a month. If you realize the difference(some would say shortcomings) of RW plan vs the bells & whistles + cost of a premium plan, then it’s a no-brainer for those looking to cut their monthly expense on cell service by as much as 80-90%. I make calls without the worry to track minutes, I text till my hearts content, and I web surf, update and post to Facebook, along with using Google or any other web related service without interuption. The difference between me and the guy with ATT? He pays over $1000 a year more to use his plan with his iPhone.

  6. leah on said:

    I’m jumping into the RW pool when they come out w/ their new phone! Can’t wait.

  7. Justin Wilson on said:

    I love the service. Hate the phone. It might work for smart phone novices who use 2 or 3 apps max. People used to complain about cell phone company bloatware. Well now Google is putting their own bloatware on. The Google service bloatware uses up all your precious little internal memory and can’t be uninstalled or moved to the SD card. I don’t need quick office, Google play movies, or Google play books on my phone. On top of that they are constantly pushing out updates to these apps which take up more and more room. I had to delete my Facebook and Yahoo mail apps (which also can’t bed moved to the SD card) because off this. They are many, many apps that can’t be moved to external storage including mobile banking apps.

    I Would suggest people avoid getting this service until republic introduces a phone that is actually worth $250.

  8. Les Gart on said:

    You know you just can’t please 100% people 100% of the time … We’ve had Republic Wireless service about 7 months now. Our former national carrier is/was doing something to their network which resulted in dropped calls, no service, etc. so our attraction point was the ability to use Wi-Fi when cellular was not reliable. We have been not disappointed – the Motorola DEFY XT does pretty much anything a non techie needs it to do. It was very easy to port the number with our old carrier. The online community offers a wealth of information and you can open a trouble ticket there – the one time I did that someone contacted us in 15 minutes via email and the issue was promptly resolved. I hope these guys make it – after paying $100 a month to a national carrier for over 15 years, Republic Wireless has been a breath of fresh air.