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Jun 05 2013

Republic Wireless Review

This article originally appeared at Living on the Cheap

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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 bit of mental math. $19 a month is $228 a year. There was a 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 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 of 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.

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