Last week we broke the news on a previously-stealthy mobile carrier called Republic Wireless, which I’ve been tracking closely since. The story so far: Bandwidth.com, which provides the VoIP backbone for services including Google Voice and Twilio, is launching an alternative mobile carrier called Republic Wireless.
As GigaOm reported last week, it will cost only $19 a month for unlimited text, data, and voice. It can offer these low rates because its phones use a special ‘Hybrid Calling’ system that relies on Wifi whenever possible, falling back to cellular connections when Wifi isn’t available. The initial cellular partner is Sprint, but Republic is working to use other carriers as fallback options as well.
Now the company has officially announced additional details about the service, which just launched.
The key new details:
The first phone being offered by Republic Wireless — which users will need to buy in order to use the service — is a modified version of The LG Optimus, running Android 2.3 (Gingerbread). This phone is offered by other carriers and is generally regarded as a solid low-end device (it’s not going to look great next to a Galaxy S II, but it’ll more than suffice for a lot of people). The device will be sold for $199 with no contract, and it will be available at a discounted rate of $99 through November 27 if you use the promo code ‘welcome19′. Again, that’s with no contract — there are no termination fees.
Here are additional details from the press release:
The first month of service bundled with the start up fee
An LG Optimus smartphone running Android 2.3 (“Gingerbread”)
Month-to-month freedom from contracts and termination fees
Unlimited voice minutes
Unlimited text messages
Unlimited data megabytes
Automatic default to Wi-Fi when in range
Automatic Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) calling over Wi-Fi
Internet protocol texting over Wi-Fi
Nationwide cellular coverage when Wi-Fi isn’t available
No overages or roaming fees, ever
No-risk, 30-day money back guarantee
Here are additional details from the Republic Wireless site, which just went live:
The service relies on users logging onto their Wifi. Republic Wireless says that people are around Wifi about 60% of the time, and you’re expected to log on when you can — the phone will montior your ‘Cellular Usage Index’, which plots how much data you’re sending over Wifi vs a cellular connection as compared to the rest of the community. Here’s the catch: if you’re routinely using a lot of cellular data, then the service reserves the right to boot you.
“Everyone’s entitled to a bad day, week or month. Kicking the cell habit, however, isn’t for everyone. Membership here is a privilege. So, over time, if you don’t bring your CUI back into a reasonable range, we’ll help you find a more suitable, traditional cellular carrier.”
But this probably isn’t as bad as it sounds. I’m personally near Wifi all the time, so I’m not too concerned about overusing my cellular connection — and the site says you could use 550 minutes, send 150 texts, and download 300 megabytes without using Wifi at all and not be at risk of receiving a warning.
So why is this a big deal?
There are other plans out there that are relatively inexpensive compared to the ridiculous smartphone bills we’re used to — notably Virgin Mobile, which offers $35 no-contract plans with unlimited data and texting. But this is cheaper than Virgin, and I think it has far more disruptive potential down the line (after all, Virgin Mobile is owned by Sprint).
There’s also the Wifi-based calling, which I think is a killer feature on its own (I recently wished aloud that Google Voice would offer VoIP calling via an Android app). The fact that I’m constantly surrounded by Wifi networks and still have to deal with dropped calls and bad cell coverage is maddening at times — having a phone that can automatically switch to Wifi whenever possible would go a long way toward solving that.
Yes, there are other phones with Wifi calling that are already available (T-Mobile offers an app on some Android devices that can do this), but you still need to buy a full-fledged T-Mobile plan to get them to work. Republic Wireless is less than half the price of a T-Mobile plan.
I still have plenty of questions that won’t be answered until I have a device in my hands (I’ll be buying one the moment they go on sale). Does the phone seamlessly take care of the handoff between Wifi and the cellular network? What kind of data speeds will I get on Sprint? And are there any other unforeseen gotchas?
But I’m — dare I say it — excited. This really could be disruptive, and while I think it might take some time to pick up steam, the $20 monthly price point has a very broad appeal.
Sounds like they have some more exciting handsets in the pipeline, too. In a comment below, Bandwidth.com SVP and General Manager of the Mobile Division Brian Dally writes:
“Arron, we like the Galaxy too (pun intended). We’re launching our beta with just one, but more phones are on the way….”
(For those who missed it, that was a reference to Samsung’s Galaxy S II).
From the site’s FAQ:
How do I make Wi-Fi calls?
Dial as you would any other call. There’s no app to open up or second number to manage. You don’t have to click a special button or take any special action. Instead, once you’re setup for a Wi-Fi network, your republic smartphone connects and routes calls over Wi-Fi automatically.
How can I make sure that I am connected to Wi-Fi all the time?
First, make sure you set up your phone to access the Wi-Fi networks you frequent. Your phone will remember those networks and connect to them automatically. Want to login to public hotspots? Download one of several apps available from the Android Market to automate that for you.
Can I bring my own phone?
No. The ultimate in smartphone freedom would be using the phone you want, on the network you want, whenever you want. We agree… and are working toward that ideal. For now, Big Cell makes the rules. Android phones, Wi-Fi and the Web fuel our optimism that the future could look very different.
Can’t I just download this to my current phone?
No. There are, however, many apps you can download to make VoIP calls over Wi-Fi using any Android or Apple smartphone. Some of them require you to manage a second number, pay for minutes or take special steps to use them. All of them require you continue overpaying for a cellular plan. Only republic wireless provides Hybrid Calling that’s not only built into the phone, but also into the price.
Only one phone? What’s that all about?
The LG Optimus is our first phone, and there will be more to follow. Affordable and well reviewed, we assure you this first phone is very well endowed with our Hybrid Calling technology and “Gingerbread,” Google’s code name for Android version 2.3. What phone should be next? Tell us with an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I have DSL at home. Will it work on that or will I have to upgrade to something faster?
You need about 80kbps both ways to hold a call. The more bandwidth the better for improved call quality. Don’t forget that streaming video or downloading large files all use bandwidth, so your mileage may vary if you are trying to make or receive calls and watch Netflix at the same time.
Here’s a quote from David Morken, CEO and cofounder of Bandwidth.com. (I rarely include these press release quotes, but this is a good one):
“We hold this to be self-evident: that the best, fastest, and highest-value network is the Wi-Fi you already have in your home and office” said David Morken, co-founder and CEO of republic wireless’ parent company, Bandwidth.com. “We believe that most smartphones should be communicating over Wi-Fi natively, and only using cellular spectrum if needed, not all the time,” said Morken. “The cellular emperor has no clothes – smart consumers have been clamoring for someone to unlock the value of our home and office networks for years. republic wireless uniquely delivers what they’ve been asking for. Our beta, launched today, ushers in a new era in wireless and is the beginning of our mission to bring customers unprecedented value.”