Republic Wireless, a North Carolina-based startup which opened its doors late last year, claims that it "runs on freedom:" Freedom from expensive two-year smartphone wireless contracts. Its Hybrid Calling technology lets Republic Wireless customers make calls and send texts over Wi-Fi when it's available, and makes the company's $19-a-month true unlimited everything plan possible.
The start of its beta rollout, however, was plagued with bugs. People had trouble ordering their smartphones, and when they got them they found out that they would drop calls when they left a Wi-Fi hotspot, and that Google Maps caused them to crash. It doesn't help that the one and only smartphone available back then was the LG Optimus S, an outdated 3.2-inch Android phone which Republic sold at the inflated price of $199.
Earlier this year, Republic Wireless announced that it would be offering its subscribers the chance to upgrade to a new phone: The Motorola Defy XT, a more modern entry-level smartphone. And it offered subscribers who'd been with it from the beginning their choice of $100 off the upgrade fee, or free wireless service for the rest of the year.
Now, Republic has changed its mind. If those subscribers start paying their subscription fees again, they can have the $249 Motorola Defy XT for free.
Why is Republic giving out free smartphones?
As it turns out, it's because the people there made a mistake. What happened is a little convoluted, but it involved the first batch of Motorola Defy XT smartphones having a glaring hardware deficiency: They couldn't roam except inside certain parts of the United States, and were basically limited to Sprint's coverage areas (like several other prepaid carriers, Republic Wireless uses Sprint's network).
The offer has been changed so that previous subscribers can now receive $100 off the cost of a "dual-band" Defy XT capable of roaming properly, or get the single-band version for free. According to Republic, "only 1.75 percent of all minutes used were roaming minutes" on the LG Optimus S, so for many this won't be a big difference.
Is the Defy XT actually worth $250?
That's a really good question. The Motorola Defy XT is also available on US Cellular's prepaid network, for only $79. That price is after a $100 mail-in rebate, though, and requires you to sign up for a wireless service subscription which costs a minimum of $59 per month for an individual plan. Even assuming you get the rebate, Republic's version of the Defy XT would pay for itself in about half a year.
Would you keep it that long, though? With only a single-core processor and an outdated version of Android, the Defy XT is decidedly entry-level, and is tied to a single wireless carrier which still has bugs to work out. Despite all that, though, there's still a long waiting list to get in to one of Republic Wireless' "beta waves" ... and for the handful of people who signed up right at the start, and are being offered the upgrade for free, it won't be that hard a decision.
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.