Republic Wireless: $19 for an Unlimited-Everything Smartphone Plan?!
Well, it looks like I’ve switched telephone plans yet again. And more importantly, a good chunk of the country will probably be doing so in the near future as well… for the days of the $100 phone bill are numbered.
Throughout most of the 2000s, Mrs. MM and I relied on various AT&T plans for our mobile phone needs. In 2010 I joined the smartphone camp with an expensive iPhone 4 and a data plan. Then in October 2012 she untethered us from the corporate behemoth and we carried both of our smartphones into the $10.00 per month utopia of an Airvoice Wireless plan.
Since then, we’ve been happily enjoying this inexpensive mobile phone service, which has met our limited needs so far. But secretly, I have been itching to test out a competing full-featured mobile phone service called Republic Wireless, because it offers unlimited talk, text, data, and some other benefits detailed below for the curiously low price of $19 per month.
Although I have done fine with a combination of Airvoice and FreedomPop to this point, running a blog of this size does tend to increase your mobile voice and data use. People email and call me more than before, and comments need approving every day. With a summer and fall of busy cross-country travel coming up, and Mrs. MM limping along with an old broken flip phone due to the accidental destruction of her almost-as-old iPhone 3, I figured we could do a bit of optimization. A new phone with the unlimited $19 service for me, while my iPhone 4 would go to the lady and remain on AirVoice at $10 per month. Plus, it would be a great chance to evaluate the Republic service in detail, so I could write a review for you.
The only drawback was that I’d have to buy myself one of the required $259 Motorola Defy smartphones to do it.
And back on September 26, the price of the older Motorola Defy XT dropped to $99 ($109 including shipping).
I was almost at the point of purchase anyway, when fate intervened nicely: Someone from Republic Wireless contacted me through this blog, and asked if they could send me one of those fancy phones for free, in exchange for checking out their service*. I approved the shipment, transferred over my existing phone number, and started doing a bit of testing in the Money Mustache laboratory.
Everything was working relatively well, although I did have a few technical questions I wanted to ask. I sent them to my contact within the company, and in a short while my new telephone rang. It was David Morken, none other than the CEO of Republic Wireless (and a larger related company called Bandwidth.com) on the line. He answered my questions for 30 minutes, and also put me in contact with some of their senior engineers, who answered the rest of my queries about their signal processing and future technology plans.
At this point, I realized we’re dealing with a different kind of mobile phone company here. It’s run by real, intelligent people who are excited by the chance to change this country’s entire communications landscape.
I’ve been using Republic Wireless exclusively for over a month now. It really works, and it really is a $19-per-month no-contract unlimited smartphone plan. Nobody is counting your minutes or your megabytes or sending you frightening monthly statements as thick as phone books – you just pay your nineteen bucks and use the thing as you see fit. It works all over the United States, because the company uses the Sprint network for all your calls and data when you are out and about with the phone. In areas that the Sprint network is not available, your Republic phone automatically roams to the Verizon network (for both voice and data) – free of charge.
The clever twist with this service is that when you are at home (or in many cases at work), with the phone connected to a wi-fi network, all calls are routed over the Internet instead. This makes those calls virtually free for Republic to provide, and it makes them better for you as well, because you are not subject to the common problem of poor phone reception inside a house or office building. This is ideal for me, since I have weak cellular reception but strong wi-fi in my basement office at home.
Even more appealing to me is the fact that my phone will now work seamlessly while visiting relatives or staying in hotels in other countries. As long as you can find a wi-fi network, you can make and receive calls for free. None of your US friends even know what country you’re in, and there will be no-nonsense regarding “long distance” or “roaming” charges. If you need to make true international calls while in wi-fi, you can do it by installing the Google Voice application, which handles them for only a few cents per minute.
Update: In June, I took this phone across the US on a road trip and found the expected voice and data access everywhere I went. But when I crossed the border into Canada, I was surprised to find that voice and texting (but not data) continued to work – for free due to an agreement Republic has made with Bell Canada. For me, this is a major bonus, as I have traditionally spent my summers in Canada with no mobile phone service because of AT&T’s ridiculous roaming rates.
True cellular calls are not possible in countries beyond US and Canada with the Republic phone, but given the cost of international roaming, you’re better just buying a SIM card locally and popping it into a compatible old phone that you buy separately.
So if the service works well, and the company seems honest and ethical, what are the drawbacks?
First of all, the word unlimited comes with an unspoken asterisk. You see, Republic is offering this ridiculously low price on the basis that many people will end up offloading a lot of their use onto Wi-fi. When you use the Sprint voice and data network, they have to pay for your usage. If you stream Pandora Radio for 8 hours every day over the Sprint network, or watch YouTube videos endlessly on the commuter train, the company will lose money on you. So there’s a sense of responsibility where you try to be a good community member and not waste the family’s resources. There’s even a little report card where you can check how much you’re using compared to the average user:
The company indicates that if you go consistently overboard on data use, you could be booted from the family, although this is very rare. However, checking your email and web surfing at will is perfectly within reason. (Music and video can burn through data over 100 times faster than just using the web to read things).
It’s almost as if David Morken is your Dad, and you don’t want to let him down. This is quite a different feeling from, say, having an AT&T account where you’d welcome any opportunity to ding the company after years of them screwing you.
But what about the Phone?
For many, the face of their phone plan is the phone itself. And with Republic, that face currently is a smartphone you’ve never heard of called the Motorola Defy XT.
The Defy is your run-of-the-mill touchscreen iPhone copycat. It’s black, it has all the usual amenities like WiFi, GPS, accelerometer, front and rear cameras, the ability to record, play, and edit music and videos, and of course access to the sum of humanity’s knowledge in your pocket at all times.
When compared directly to the recent iPhones, it has the disadvantages of a dowdier shape, slower response to touches, and lower quality microphone and cameras, and screen. It also can burn through battery power more quickly (I need to charge mine every day), and mine tends to crash every week or two, requiring a reboot (vs. once every few months with the iPhone).
At 480×854 pixels, the Defy falls short of the ultrafine 640×960 resolution on the iPhone 4, although it still handily whomps the iPhone 3 and other previous-generation phones. I took these three side-by-side pictures for comparison:
And the remaining disadvantages are partially offset by the fact that it has an easy-to-access microSD card slot (no more of Apple’s “$100 for 8GB more memory” nonsense), a user-swappable battery, and a water, dust, and shock-resistant design. I have verified that last claim by carrying the Defy in the sawdusty pocket of my construction pants for the past month, getting it rained upon thoroughly, and dropping it accidentally without a case on the bamboo, slate, and concrete floors throughout my residence. It still looks and works like new.
Another big positive in my book is that it runs Google’s Android operating system, which is far more flexible than Apple’s IOS to most techies, which makes it more fun to use.
For example, when you want to add a few hundred MP3s to your phone for mobile partygoing, you plug it into your computer and it appears as an external hard drive, just as it should. Drag in the files and folders, and you’re done. None of these ridiculous concepts like “itunes”, “libraries”, or “syncing”, although the Google Play system can make things as automatic as you like, with all your files stored in the cloud if you choose to put them there.
Another benefit of Android is the thorough integration with Google stuff in general. Google Maps Navigation is a pleasure to use: you tap one button and speak “Arches National Park”, and it generates fully interactive directions that update as you drive. Similarly, you can speak all your search queries, text messages, and even dictate entire emails, and it will very accurately transcribe them onto the phone, potentially saving a lot of finger-pecking. My iPhone 4 didn’t have any of that.
We could go on and on about the subtle differences between the various smartphones, but the bottom line is that they are all plenty amazing. Sufficient to make any human pass out due to Awesomeness Overload if you took one back in a time machine to just the year 2006. To fret over the remaining differences is to fall prey to the tragedy of Tiny Details Exaggeration Syndrome, which is a fate I wish upon no Mustachians.
And if you’re not satisfied with the 80% perfect Defy XT, Republic Wireless even has a solution for that: within just a few months, they are rolling out three new phones of varying fanciness – the top of which is apparently one of the iPhone-shaming superphones that have been coming out these days.
They have agreed to send me one of those beauties when they become available, and at that point I’ll give it a thorough evaluation, since it will be targeted to people who actually care about the finer points of cutting edge hardware. As much as I try to keep fancy gadgets from dominating my own life, I still find it awfully fun to dig into them in detail when I have a good excuse to do so.
So in summary, I can enthusiastically recommend Republic Wireless to anyone who needs more voice and data coverage than a pay-as-you-go plan offers. Just as Pandora set a $3.00 per month ceiling on my music expenditure, Republic has now boldly capped the US cellular market at $19 per month. If you’re paying more than this, you should switch. Like, now.
Even if you have a remaining contract, call your company, find out what the termination fee would be, and do the math. You’ll probably find it is hugely profitable to just pay it and immediately switch to $19 per month, rather than going on at your current rate. The savings for many people will be over $1000 over the life of a contract.
Edit: although there is now a new phone and four new rate plans available, I’m leaving this original banner in place since the Defy and the $19.00 plan is still available as of this update (Dec. 31st). This link will lead you to the whole selection of what they offer.
Once you are signed up, you can generate referrals for your own friends, triggering additional free months of service on both sides. With a persuasive demeanor and a sufficient supply of friends, you could amass up to two years of free phone service like this (they cap the reward at 25 months).
Bonus from a Reader: One of my biggest peeves with the stock configuration of the Republic phone was the text messaging. When texts come in, you get an alert sound, but the text message doesn’t pop up – it just briefly scrolls through the notification bar and it is gone. You need to manually load the texting app and go dig up the message to reply. And if your phone is idle with the screen off, you get no visual notification at all!
This flaw caused me to miss several messages, including an invitation to a beer-fueled Friday Night game of Bocce ball, at a nearby park that overlooks the mountains while the summer sun sets behind them. I was not pleased.
The solution? Install the free HandCent SMS app. It makes the text messaging system work in a useful and intuitive manner. Initial setup brings up a box about signing up for a handcent services account, but I cancelled out of all of that and found the app still works without any account.
* While this blog does not do paid reviews or endorsements, I am occasionally lucky enough to accept free things that I would have bought anyway (books, bikes, computers, energy-saving things, fitness stuff, financial services, etc.) They may or may not get reviewed on the blog, depending on how useful they could be for readers. Getting things free doesn’t influence my review, because this blog now earns enough to buy anything it wants for review, so everything is effectively free.
But if in doubt, do your own research and let me know if you ever find a better service than any of those I recommend here. Finding better services will always win out over making money for the blog, so I’m all ears!
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