Republic Wireless’s sales pitch has a curious lack of asterisks: $19 a month for unlimited voice, text and data service, with no contract required.
(Yes, it has an acceptable usage policy that bans conduct that “harms” or “interferes” with its network, but so does every Internet provider, even the ones selling unlimited gigabit fiber connections.)
This Raleigh, N.C., company can do that because, more than other carriers, it lets Wi-Fi do cellular bandwidth’s job. Whenever one of its phones is on Wi-Fi, everything — not just Internet data, but voice calling and text messaging — is switched to that wireless connection from the Sprint service Republic resells.
And to judge from my on and off testing of a loaner phone over the past few months, it pretty much just works. You pick up the phone, you call or text a number with no discernible difference in sound quality. The fact that you’re calling via the Internet only becomes obvious when you exit your own wireless network’s coverage. That’s when my calls dropped – the single ugliest part of the Republic Wireless experience and one — and the Republic phone automatically redialed over Sprint’s signal.
Sprint’s network provides more-than-good-enough coverage as a backup to Wi-Fi. For example, the phone had service outside Shepherdstown, W. Va., where a T-Mobile phone was offline. You could use Republic only as a plain old wireless service — the site’s sign-up page doesn’t make you confirm that you have the 80 kilobits per second of bandwidth required for Wi-Fi calling — although Republic’s business model might get dented if too many people employed it that way.
Republic is upfront about one catch to its approach: It doesn’t support multimedia messaging. Trying to dispatch a picture or video message to a Republic number is just like trying to send an MMS to a Google Voice number, the message stalls out at the “sending” phase and eventually fails with an error saying it could not be sent. Fixing this will require other carriers to support an updated MMS specification.
There is another catch and it represents a more serious flaw, for now. Republic sells only one phone, and this $199 Motorola Defy XT Android model looks mighty antiquated. (You can get it for $79 if you sign up for a $29 rate; after a year, you’ll be paying $10 extra a month for nothing.) Its 3.7-inch screen feels tiny, without LTE support it’s stuck on Sprint’s slower-than-average 3G data service, and its 2.3 version of Android is horribly obsolete.
“We expect to offer a very high-end handset with all the bell and whistles later this year, followed by a mid-tier handset, and a lower-tier handset,” wrote publicist Cherie Gary in an e-mail. But that first, 4G-compatible device is a couple of steps away from reaching the market: “The handset manufacturer is working hard on finalizing the device and then there is interoperability testing that goes on between Republic Wireless, the handset manufacturer and carrier.”
Bringing your own phone to Republic is not an option, thanks to the lack of unlocked, Sprint-compatible phones on the market.
Republic may face a bigger issue by next year: The rest of the industry is moving towards more Wi-Fi offloading. This goes beyond such earlier, limited ventures as T-Mobile’s Wi-Fi calling or AT&T’s own network of Wi-Fi hot spots; a new standard called Wi-Fi Certified Passpoint will make secure Wi-Fi roaming vastly easier and more widespread.
But although Passpoint allows for voice calling over Wi-Fi, it doesn’t require it. And unless other carriers choose that option, they may have a hard time getting their prices near Republic’s numbers.
Credits: Rob Pegoraro/Discovery