COMMENTARY | Republic Wireless offers contract-free smartphones with plans starting -- and ending -- at $19 per month. Everyone pays the same amount, and nobody has to count minutes or megabytes.
So, what's the catch? First, the reason the prices are so low is because Republic's phones use its Hybrid Calling technology. That means they default to Wi-Fi for everything, even voice calls and texts. The $19 per month charge is less like a traditional smartphone plan, and more like insurance for when you're not at a Wi-Fi hotspot. Yes, you will be dropped as a customer if you use too much, but their website shows you how much you're using so you can keep track.
The second catch? The service is still in beta, and that means bugs are expected. My Republic Wireless phone just came in the mail, though, so here's what I learned after a day or so of testing it.
The phone itself is an LG Optimus S, which comes in Sprint packaging ... with a unique twist that I won't spoil for future customers. It's a basic, entry-level Android smartphone, with a 2 GB microSD card, and is about the cheapest one you can get. Because you're buying it off-contract, though, it costs $199, the same as an iPhone 4S on Verizon (but without the expensive two-year contract).
The phone feels cheaper than most Android devices, but it runs stock Gingerbread (Android 2.3) with almost no clutter at all. Instead of a screen full of non-uninstallable trashware apps, like free trials and AT&T Navigator, you're greeted on startup by a blank slate. Only the basic Google apps like the Android Market are installed, plus Republic's Hybrid Calling app, which runs automatically in the background.
To test the phone out, I called up my aunt using Hybrid Calling and spoke to her for a couple of hours. One of the calls that I made (and got her voice mail on) sounded garbled, but hanging up and trying again cleared that up.
While I was actually talking to her, there was noticeable lag. I could hear her pause to listen to something I said, a second or so after I said it. She also said her voice sounded echoey sometimes, or that it sounded like the signal was breaking up, although it could have been her phone. The call didn't drop for the whole 2-3 hours, and I understood what she was saying for nearly all of that time (while in a quiet indoor area). The call quality was about equal to a normal cellphone call.
Out and about in the neighborhood, I was able to receive emails like normal. Sprint's wireless Internet seemed to work in my area.
"Our beta is currently full"
That's the message displayed on Republic Wireless' signup page. Those who are still interested, though, can sign up to be emailed when new phones are available, "in early- to mid-2012."
Jared Spurbeck is an open-source software enthusiast, who uses an Android phone and an Ubuntu laptop PC. He has been writing about technology and electronics since 2008.