Updated: Republic Wireless, the division of Bandwidth.com that offers customers an Android (s goog) 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 (s S) 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 (s goog) 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 (s s) 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 (s t), Boingo (s wifi) 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.