updated 11:55 pm EDT, Wed March 21, 2012
Company hints at VOIP apps
Upstart carrier Republic Wireless, which has closed its beta program that offered a small group of potential customers a chance to buy a specific Android phone and a low-cost unlimited voice, text and (most importantly) 3G data plan, has announced that the beta program will resume this summer. The carrier is doing a slow, limited-participation rollout of the service, adding features and more phone models through user feedback.
The company plans to roll out more available models as early as next month, though it's unlikely that iPhones will be among them despite high user interest. Most iPhones in the US are sold locked to a carrier and heavily subsidized, and though factory-unlocked iPhones are available to buy, the cost starts at $650 for a 16GB iPhone 4S. Republic offers genuinely-unlimited voice, text and 3G data for $19 per month plus applicable taxes.
Republic's idea is to leverage the power of nearly-ubiquitous Wi-Fi in most urban areas in order to make users rely on Wi-Fi more heavily for most of the services normally associated with traditional cellular companies. The company employs VOIP for calling and SMS messaging while the user is on Wi-Fi and switches automatically to normal cellular service (alerting the user with a short tone and visual indicator) whenever needed, referred to as UMA.
It can offer unlimited services because it leases cellular capacity from Sprint, the only US carrier that also offers unlimited plans. Since users will mostly be working in Wi-Fi zones, their actual use of cellular should be low in most cases and switching between Wi-Fi and cellular should be largely invisible to most users.
Currently, Republic uses only the LG Optimus, an older and basic Android phone running Gingerbread (Android v2.3), and sells it for $200. Customers must buy the phone from Republic to use the service, though its price includes first month's plan. The company's general manager, Brian Dally, also mentions that the company now has four times the number of employees it had at launch, though he doesn't specify how many people that actually entails. Dally hints that the company is working on apps for other phones and possibly other platforms, saying "we'll provide some tools to help you save money on your Big Cell bill even before you can join" as early as next month.
Republic places a high priority on user feedback, setting up forums and offering Dally's direct email. At present, no new members are being accepted, but the company does say its working on a smoother "handoff" between Wi-Fi and cellular use for when it resumes the beta program in June.