just one more geek in a sea of austin techies

November 28, 2012

Ups/Downs to $19 unlimited smartphone plan #PhoneGeek

Republic Wireless is one of the first companies in a long while to look like it may have some success in seriously shaking up the US cellular market status quo. The last company to do that was Apple but that, unfortunately, was at the cost of increasing the average prices consumers pay for cellular services. Republic Wireless, on the other hand, is trying to change the cell phone plan game by saving consumers money. A LOT of money. The company is offering just a single service plan: $19 a month unlimited everything with no contract (wow!)

No, the offer isn't too-good-to-be-true but it is true-that-it-isn't-all-good...

Smartphones Suck Money (and iPhones lead the way)
According to Money Magazine, consumers are paying 31% more for their cellular plans now than in 2009. The main culprit, of course, is mandatory data plans on smartphones. Also, despite the fact that text messages are teeny-tiny in size (a text message uses almost no bandwidth compared to a short voice call), we are still paying separate fees for text messaging plans. Worse than this, though, was the success of Apple/AT&T in getting iPhone users to pay extra for their data compared to users of other AT&T-serviced smart phones. A family of four outfitted with smart phones can easily spend over $200 a month in fees. With the continuing demise of "unlimited' plans and the coming change of voice traffic over to VoLTE the cellular data service fees are more likely to go up rather than down.  Don't buy into the hype about the move to shared data plans -- while they are a logical evolution in cellular service offerings the shared plans offered are overpriced compared to current individual plans (also see here).

Republic Wireless: "Freedom" for $19 a month
RW is taking on the big boy cellular providers by attacking those high monthly service fees. RW still has to pay for the services it provides, though, and $19 can't cover the cost of providing "unlimited" service. What's the catch?

RW is betting that its customers are, shall we say, more "technically inclined" than the average consumer and will understand how RW operates as well as what RW expects from its customers. You don't need special technical knowledge to be a RW customer but it helps both you and RW if you understand what you're buying into.

Catch #1: Wifi or Bust
First and most important: the RW service relies heavily on the availability and use of WiFi. If you've never worried about or know how to connect your phone to a local WiFi hotspot then Republic Wireless may not be for you. The "unlimited" part of the plans depend on a majority of traffic being routed through someone else's network (WiFi internet connection) rather than the cellular network. In short, RW has to pay for cellular traffic but not for WiFi traffic. RW expects their customers to use hotspots whenever possible.

WiFi requires less power than cellular so battery life is improved.

WiFi requires less power than cellular connections
so battery life is extended when using only WiFi
for phone operations including voice calls.

Catch #2: "One Phone Fits Everyone"
Motorola Defy XT is the
only phone model offered
(Android 2.3)
Have you been eyeing a certain phone model? Forget it -- RW only offers one phone and, no, you cannot bring your own. In order to make the best use of any WiFi hotspots the RW phones must have customized software in order to route voice calls, SMS and MMS over WiFi and still be able to seamlessly switch to cellular networks when necessary. The software changes needed are part of a phone's "core" software (i.e., not just an app). You can't bring your own phone because you can't make the software changes needed. RW can't offer more phones because of the cost involved to make and maintain those changes per phone model. Thankfully the one phone model offered is a decent Android handset -- not close to the latest, greatest, but still very serviceable. So far this is the second phone model -- the company offered existing customers an option to upgrade from the first model to the newer model at a discount.

Run into a problem with your phone? You have the company and every other customer as a potential resource for resolving issues since everyone has the same model phone.

Catch #3: Same Coverage as Sprint... Except Where It Isn't
Republic Wireless gets its service via Sprint which means wherever Sprint has a tower, RW has a tower.

Finding the coverage for RW isn't as simple as looking at a Sprint coverage map, however. Sprint has deals with other carriers to use their towers to cover areas where Sprint does not have towers but there is no guarantee that those deals also include coverage for RW customers. Because of such deals and because deals change/expire over time, Sprint coverage maps can be quite misleading. Bill Meek has posted some good information on his RWUSERS.COM website.

If you live/work in well-populated areas, Sprint coverage is pretty decent (disclaimer: over the past decade I've been a multi-year customer of Sprint, Verizon and AT&T) and is getting better, most recently via it's November 7th purchase of cellular spectrum (coverage) from US Cellular.

Good Deal or Bad Deal? (hint: it's GOOD!)
The Republic Wireless service is definitely not for everyone and probably not even for most. Coverage in less populated areas can be very questionable and the inability to choose your own phone will be a deal breaker for many. But do those facts make the service "bad"?

If you think of your phone as a utility (rather than as a status symbol, cutting-edge tech toy, etc) then you're already in a good mindset to consider saving some serious money. Assuming your current monthly bill is at least $70, the savings alone will pay for the phone outright within five months. That means if you try out the service for six months you'll end up with a new phone and unlimited cell service for $50+ less than the price of six months of your current service. If it turns out that the RW service/phone works well for you then it's all gravy after that: $19 a month for unlimited everything.

So... what will you spend that extra $50 a month on?

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