Tech Lab

Smartphone offer may be too good to last

Unlimited smartphone service for $19 a month? Really?

That’s the plan from Republic Wireless, a North Carolina company that’s trying to set a new standard in dirt-cheap communications. Consumers are taking the bait; there’s a long waiting list to sign up for the service at

I don’t see how they can survive at this price. Indeed, the company admits that it is testing the concept and may decide it is unsustainable. That would be a tragedy, because Republic is delivering a remarkable bargain when smartphone bills can easily run $80 a month or more.


Today’s smartphones have Wi-Fi chips that can connect them wirelessly to the Internet. That’s why you can install the popular Internet phone service Skype on your smartphone and use it to make calls to other Skype users without burning any of your cellular minutes.

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Republic is working the same angle. Its parent company, Inc., already provides Internet-based phone calling to thousands of US businesses, and even carries lots of traffic for Skype. The company sells a decent but low-end Android smartphone for $199, full price, with no two-year contract. Customers activate the phone’s built-in Wi-Fi service, and connect to their home or office network. Now all calls move over the Internet.

But you’ll sometimes want to make calls when you’re on the road. That’s where the other half of Republic’s hybrid system kicks in. Republic pays Sprint Nextel Inc. to provide standard 3G cellular service to its customers when they can’t use Wi-Fi. Since Sprint’s network is nationwide, Republic users can always be reasonably confident that their calls will get through.

Originally, the Sprint calling plan offered by Republic wasn’t unlimited. Use it too often, and Republic Wireless would cut you off. But last week, the company announced a change of heart. It now vows truly unlimited service. You get all the calls, Web surfing, and e-mails you want, whether on Wi-Fi or Sprint. Republic still reserves the right to ban certain extreme practices, like leaving a phone connected 24 hours a day. But there will be no more limits on normal usage.

So how’s the service? Not magnificent, but not bad. Start with the phone. For now, Republic offers just one model, the LG Optimus. It’s smaller than the average Android phone, with a smooth rubberized case that feels pleasant in the hand.


Don’t count on using it for streamed video; the low-resolution screen is cramped and has a grainy, pixellated look. However, it’s good enough for reading e-mails and casual Internet surfing. Throw in a so-so 3.2-megapixel camera, GPS navigation, and of course Wi-Fi access, and you’ve got a decent entry-level smartphone for $199. Still, it’s a significant investment, so Republic promises to refund the cost of the phone if it abandons its unlimited service plan.

Calling quality was a bit of a disappointment. I often use the Internet-based phone service Google Voice on my Android phone, and I’ve been quite happy with the results. The calls sound just as good as they do over the standard AT&T Inc. cellular network. I figured Republic Wireless would deliver similar quality; I figured wrong. Wi-Fi calls went through quickly, but voices had a tinny sound with a hint of echo. It’s not a fatal flaw; I could clearly hear the other party, and they told me that I sounded fine.

A Republic Wireless spokesman told me the company is aware of the issue and is tweaking its software for better performance.

They’d better hurry, or Republic customers may do all their calling via Sprint. When I connected over the nation’s number-three cellular carrier, the calls sounded fine.

A horde of companies offer no-contract wireless plans, but none as inexpensive as Republic. Rival no-contract companies like MetroPCS and Boost Mobile generally charge $50 to $60 a month.


Still, this new approach to cheap calling comes at a price. Republic’s customer service is lousy. Got a technical problem? Send them an e-mail, because there’s no phone number for tech support.

So if you want handholding, Republic Wireless is not for you. But the call quality is decent, and the price is exceptional. At $19 a month, I don’t see how these guys can make it. I hope they prove me wrong.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at

Correction: Due to a reporting error, the Tech Lab column about Republic Wireless incorrectly characterized how Google Voice and Skype works on the smartphone. Google Voice callers will need to use their monthly allotment of voice minutes, while Skype charges a fee for most calls.