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Summary:

Republic Wireless, the division of Bandwidth.com that offers customers an Android phone with unlimited voice data and texts for $19 a month launches Tuesday. Here’s how it will work (there’s a $199 “membership” fee) and what it means for the wireless industry.

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Updated: Republic Wireless, the division of Bandwidth.com that offers customers an Android phone with unlimited voice, data and text for $19 a month, launches Tuesday. It’s a revolutionary price point in the industry but it’s also an attempt to make Wi-Fi calling easier and more user-friendly. If it works it could change the wireless game in ways that other mobile broadband upstarts have tried and failed to do.

Republic Wireless’ love affair with Wi-Fi.

Republic Wireless has made Wi-Fi the linchpin of its mobile service with a cellular network provided by Sprint as its backup. Customers will join the service by paying $199 to get a phone and then $19 a month after that with no contracts. There’s a 30-day window for someone to return the phone and get their money back. So how does this work?

By default all calls, data and texts are sent via Wi-Fi networks when possible, and switch only to cellular if no Wi-Fi access is available. That’s one reason for the low price on the service, as most people can access an existing Wi-Fi network in their home or office for free. Brian Dally, the general manager of Republic says he expects at least 60 percent of the traffic to go over Wi-Fi networks. But he assures me that when he says unlimited data that it does extend to the 3G portion of the service as well.

Update: Looks like I should have ignored Dally and paid closer attention to the terms of service that note users who spend too much time on the cellular network will be booted out of the Republic club. Karl Bode over at Broadband Reports explains the situation and Republic’s Cellular Usage Index which is Republic’s Orwellian phrase for people who use too much cellular. The service regards fair use on cellular as about “550 minutes, 150 texts, and roughly 300 megabytes of data.”

Om said this sounds a lot like UMA, the technology that T-Mobile used for its Home Zone products and that many people loved. But Dally said Republic is not using the Kineto technology that UMA is based on, and that the user experience won’t be quite seamless when it comes to switching from one network to the other. At the moment users will hear a tone in the middle of a call signaling the change in networks, but the call will continue. That’s better than it cutting off entirely, but Dally says he’s still looking for feedback on the user experience and invited me to check back in a few weeks on the forums to see what users think.

Cheap matters but hardware does too.

To ensure the primacy of Wi-Fi, Republic had to build software that puts Wi-Fi first. It chose to do this using the Android OS not only because the platform is hot but it also allows developers to access the hardware. The first phone for the system will be the LG Optimus. If that’s not optimal, Dally promises that more phones are coming but he was mum about the timeline and particular devices.

The  LG Optimus Android smartphone runs the Gingerbread version of Android and will come preloaded with the Republic software. A first-time user will be asked to put in his Wi-Fi network and then for information on other Wi-Fi access points. The phone will remember that information. Users will also be able to download apps to help manage authentication and payment for Wi-fi networks if they want, but Republic won’t preload any of that onto the handset.

The use of Sprint as the network partner means the phone uses Sprint’s CDMA network, so it won’t roam internationally. And, if Sprint coverage doesn’t work well in your area, think carefully about taking it up. We expect Kevin Tofel to take the handset through its paces later this week.

Is it too good to be true?

The idea of disrupting the cellular world is not a new one, and while VoIP calling over Wi-Fi has come a long way, the quality of experience can be sub par. Dally agrees that delivering better quality of service on Wi-Fi is something he hopes will happen, but he’s also confident that today’s Wi-Fi networks and the ubiquity of access is enough to make this service viable.

And beyond providing cheap mobile service, Dally espouses some of the same ethos that his parent company Bandwidth.com shares– The idea is to take telecommunications from the realm of a few large carriers and make it more egalitarian and IP-based. “The phone prefers WiFi because its ubiquitous and cheap and it’s not controlled by a few large companies,” Dally said. Bandwidth.com owns an IP network (which Republic will use to connect calls) that currently provides VoIP services to Skype, Google Voice and other IP voice providers.

Between Bandwidth.com’s network, Sprint and your home Wi-Fi points, Dally believes he has a service. And given the emphasis on public in all of the company’s branding, I’m wondering if there’s a Fon element to be found here, where members can sign up to share their hot spots. And while today Republic isn’t signing partnerships with existing hot spot and access providers such as the AT&T-owned Wayport, Boingo or even iPass, Dally doesn’t rule them out in the future. Such partnerships which would give it even more flexibility to default to Wi-Fi coverage.

So it’s possible that Republic could flip the mobile phone model so cellular connections and pricing goes the way of satellite phone pricing — expensive and suitable only for a select few who roam the uninhabited wilds. I’ll be eager to see how this experiment plays out. The beta starts Tuesday with Republic offering to ship a cluster of handsets every Friday based on a first come first served basis, and folks can sign up at the company’s web site.

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  1. So I pay my Internet service provider for my broadband access and also pay Republic to use that connection to make phone calls? Why should I pay Republic if they are going to be using my existing Internet connection? How is this different from using one of the dozens of VoIP apps that can use Cell data and WiFi and switch on the fly?

    It would be revolutionary if they didn’t charge people when using WiFi networks. I’m not going to pay $20, in addition to my broadband bill, to make phone calls that I can make using other free apps.

    1. Hi. A quick clarification. We would never charge you for using your own network! Indeed, that’s the whole point. The $19/month covers all of your calling, texting and data downloads to the phone on the cellular network when you need it, and on any Wi-Fi network (home, work, wherever…) when you don’t.

      We’re the first service ever to bundle what you like about your VoIP apps with cellular access too, for one low fixed monthly price… with no additional phone number required… and no need to setup and manage a separate app or service. You’re welcome. ;)

      1. Hi Brian, is it possible to keep my number and transfer it to republic wireless?

    2. Fine…then look at is as you paying Republic for 550 minutes, 150 texts and 300 MB of data…which would be way more than $19.99 on any other carrier. Then you can consider the WiFi part a bonus.

    3. It all depends on the context of “unlimited.” Think of the regular network as a bonus to the standard Wi-Fi operation. Republic is basically offering a new interface that allows you to use Wi-Fi on the go (similar to how Vonage uses the Internet for making calls). To use other apps, you’d still need to have regular cell phone and pay the bill to that carrier. Here’s a fuller breakdown: http://www.rescuecom.com/blog/index.php/rescuecom/a-mobile-network-that-runs-on-freedom/

  2. i own a computer and cell phone store that serves primarily lower income persons. this baffles me. 90% of my customers would want this. the other 10% have extreme high end phones they will not give up, but a good chunk of the other 90% also have high end phones but i believe the savings will be enough to convert them.

    my customer group mostly uses prepaid already. either cricket(mostly with purchased second hand high end phones flashed from verizon or sprint) or the GSM BYOD offering from simple mobile, t-mobile or h2o wireless.

    now this is the problem. many(if not most) of my customers and believe most other Americans who would be really attracted to this do not have the most positive view about wifi. for this particular group of not so tech savvy and low income persons wifi is often a dreaded unreliable but last resort way to get on the Internet at a crowded hot spot, a free connection provided in an apartment building or a distant open connection 2 houses down. sure some have there own DSL or cable but it is not thought of as wifi. wifi is the free connection that usually does not work well.

    there is one other thing this group identifies with ‘wifi.’ it is wuth neqar absolute certainty that i know what my customers are talking about when they ask if a certain phone has ‘wifi capability’ they are not asking me if they can use a home connection. instead they are asking if the phone can provide a hotspot/tethering for connecting a laptop.

    so all there people will want to sign up but never activate the wifi part. is republic ok with that? just cellular usage? whats the TOS/FUP say about that?

  3. how will this be sold?

    online?

    big box retail?

    will small cell phone shops be able to distribute?

  4. Having now used T-Mobile’s wifi app on android (b/c the coverage at our offices suck something fierce)… I can attest that wifi calling has come a long way since the days of Gizmo5 hacks on android. In fact, it’s on-par w/ the tower coverage I get when outside our offices at ZiaSat.

    I’m certainly giving this a shot… and after ‘beta-ing’ it for a month or so, we may switch our entire corporate accounts to Republic pending investigation of global wifi coverage. We’ll probably keep one or two T-Mo phones for our travel to Germany, but this case looks great.

    1. Hey Luke, thanks! Our early beta users were impressed with the quality, and I hope you will be too. When you try it, let me know what you think. republic leverages all the VoIP technology and talent of our parent company, Bandwidth.com, and we want to make sure we get it right on mobile phones.

      1. I have signed up for the Beta program since the day of the launch and have still not been notified of being accepted…WHEN will it be opened up???

  5. I have been using WiFi connections for years with my iPod Touch and have been pleased with the calls. The only time you would have a problem is in a power outage and you can limit that with a back UPS unit which for those out there that don’t know what that is it is battery backup.
    GO Republic Wireless and take down the Fat Cat bonus boy’s of the cellular world.

  6. This won’t work, at least not outside of large cities. We are far too spread out in this country, and for the vast majority of us outside of cities we are just outside of any kind of wifi networks most of the time.

    I had a huge wake up call this past week. I like to tinker with VOIP, I use my ipad with VOIP a lot, I have talkatone tied to my google voice account, when I have a good wifi signal it works very nicely. But I was already aware that it works like crap over 3g if you don’t have a perfect signal. Anyhow last week, here in the Northeast, we had a huge storm which left many states without power for a week or so. During that time ATT still had some cell phone service, it was spotty but it worked, but no 3g/data. I also had no wifi without power, even when I got a generator hooked up I still had no wifi because their was no internet from the cable company. In terms of VOIP I was utterly and completely dead and if I relied only on VOIP at best I was completely disconnected, at worst I was putting myself and my family in danger by not having access to the outside world.

    I just don’t see widespread adoption of VOIP happening in this country. We are too spread out, 3g really does suck outside of the cities, and in the case of a power outage you would be unable to make any calls.

    1. Spinedoc, there are indeed times when VoIP won’t suffice. The rising Wi-Fi wave may surprise us all though with just how even more ubiquitous and resilient it becomes.

      Just in case, republic wireless phones fail over to cellular when they need to (as KD points out in a comment below, thanks).

      1. Interesting, I wonder how many minutes you get when on “cellular”, might make it worth it if you get a decent bucket of minutes. I’ve been seeing this ubiquitous wifi internet stuff for the past 15 years, honestly outside of the major cities it hasn’t really changed, and 3g just isn’t reliable enough out there.

        I think it’s great though and kudos for Republic to helping us break out of the carriers death hold they have on us, I hope they succeed. I think those of you in major cities where you can just continuously hop from one free wifi to another would greatly benefit.

    2. A lot of people have long dropped their landline for VOIP already with digital phone service from their internet provider. And if the power goes out, so does their phones anyway.

      And quite frankly…how many people that DO have a regular landline have one that connects directly to their wall to draw power? For almost 20 years now, many people have nothing but cordless phones. And when the power goes out, so do those. At least with this, you have Sprint to back you up.

  7. Folks, it is not a VoIP only service! It can use Sprint when needed! $20 covers the part where may need to use Sprint network.

    1. KD, you’ve got it right. Perhaps hard to believe, but true!

      1. So if I don’t use the Sprint network and only use WiFi, will I not get charged anything in that month?

        1. Stacey Higginbotham Steven Tuesday, November 8, 2011

          No you still pay the $19.

  8. This looks absolutely fantastic… Totally makes sense to me. One thing that I haven’t seen addressed anywhere – will new users be able to port their current cell phone numbers to their Republic phones?

  9. I think Skype is in a perfect position to do this (and you probably already can with some fiddling). Imagine if, when you’re signed in to Skype, phone calls come to your Skype account but otherwise they get forwarded to your cell number?

    Like I said, I’m sure you can already do this, Skype just needs to simplify the process.

    1. you don’t need skype’s help for this – just buy a skype-in number and have people call you at your google voice number (get one for free if you dont already have it).

      now, when someone calls, both cell and skype phones. answer either one and the other stops ringing. want to switch between phones mid call, press *4 and the other phones ring again, go pick one up and you’ve switched to that service.

      this has been around, and working great, for years.

      republicwireless does more, and with that ‘more’ is a feature that neither skype nor any other VoIP operator can currently compete with: bundling mobile minutes/sms/data along with the wifi minutes/sms. and all that for $20. i’m sold on the idea – i love it.

      the only other company with the proper assets to compete in this space is truphone.com with their TruSim (cellular voice/sms/data for GSM networks) and TruApp (wifi voice/sms for mobiles/tablets/computers), but they haven’t packaged their TruSim and TruApp services into a single offering yet (maybe they never will) and so for now they don’t compete with this at all.

      power to you replublic wireless! i only wish you were GSM flavored, but i might just suck it up and switch to *shudder*CMDA just for you! :)

      1. if i belong to no phone service now can i join republic wireless & what would be my total monthly price

  10. I really dont understand why people are exited about this .

    buy a unlimited data plan and download a voip app and u can even make international calls and also most of voip providers offer free calls to US and Canada anyway .

    OR

    Am I missing something here ? Is this really a revolutionary invention in VoIP ?

    1. But you are paying $40 for voice plan + $20 for messaging + data plan. Here you just pay $20. It won’t be a good fit for all but for some. I have wifi at home and work which covers 80% of my time. When I am away from wifi, the Sprint cellular network will support it.

    2. My Verizon unlimited plan is about $55/month. I’m interested in this because of the potential savings.

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