Lee H. Badman

Network Computing Blogger

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Road-Testing Republic Wireless and Its $19 Mobile Plan

Whether you pay the bills for a fleet of corporate smartphones or just write the check for your own device, you know smartphones aren't cheap. Even "free" phones have their true costs buried in the monthly subscription price and non-removable bloatware that they frequently come loaded with. My own plan runs me about $90 a month for voice and a grandfathered unlimited data plan with Verizon, so I was intrigued by Republic Wireless's offer of all-you-can-eat voice, data and texting for $19 a month.

Republic Wireless is a relative newcomer to the highly competitive mobile market, and touts itself as the no-contract, $19-per-month unlimited service that "runs on freedom." Actually, it runs on Wi-Fi. The service is a hybrid approach that will use local Wi-Fi networks when and where available, switching to Sprint's cellular network only when not in range of an 802.11 signal.

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I spend a lot of time around multiple wireless networks every day, so I was intrigued. After engaging Republic and being assured that, yes, unlimited truly means just that (as opposed to other carriers that define unlimited as a few gigabytes per month), I soon found myself with an evaluation phone: the Motorola Defy XT handset. As part of Republic's model, this is the only handset that can currently be used on its network, and it'll cost you about $250 up front.

So how did it work out? I can't say that I was blown away by any part of the experience, but, at the same time, for $19 a month you'd certainly get what you're paying for. The Android-based Defy is a nice enough smartphone with decent features. However, Republic's model is 3G-only right now, so the list of "what you don't get" certainly includes the 4G experience that is fast becoming the de facto standard for mobile connectivity.

Republic's support model is also 100% online, and you won't talk to a live body under any circumstances. Republic says that most support calls are related to billing, and since there is no room for confusion on the monthly $19 bill, the online-only model should suffice. I don't buy this argument, but then again, the customer support you get from full-price carriers isn't that great, either.

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The data side of Republic Wireless is on par with other 3G services I've used from Verizon and AT&T in my area in upstate New York. As for voice calls, I was consistently underwhelmed. I used the Republic phone on my Cisco and Aerohive secure and open wireless networks that are of known excellent quality, and never really could shake an echo. When on the Sprint network things were fine, but the Wi-Fi side--where Republic wants you to do most of your calling-- wouldn't work for me in the long term. Republic pointed me to the technical details of a pending firmware update that is supposed to fix the echo problem.

My biggest curiosity, and the reason I wanted to test Republic to begin with, was around how a call in progress would behave when transitioning from Wi-Fi to the cellular network. Granted, Republic estimates that most calls will come from fixed locations, but it's reasonable to expect that a call will occasionally start on Wi-Fi and hand off to 3G when the caller moves. Though I was hoping there would be a technical triumph in the form of seamless transition, it just isn't the case. The call drops and immediately self-dials for reconnection when moving from 802.11 to 3G. It's clear Republic and Sprint are trying to crack the same technical challenges that the rest of the industry is up against.

Republic Wireless is interesting for price alone, and will work for many consumers that can tolerate the idiosyncrasies that come with the service. It's not marketed as a business-class mobile product, nor is it ready to be one. That said, more competition is good for the entire market. And when Republic or anyone else solves the Wi-Fi-to-mobile hand-off challenge, I'll be ready to sign on. I might even pay $20 a month for that.

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