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Republic Wireless's $19-a-month service comes with questions

Republic Wireless’s $19-a-month service comes with questions

Republic Wireless is a new MVNO (mobile virtual network operator) offering a wireless plan with unlimited voice, text, and data for $19 a month, with no contract. Republic is offering nationwide coverage, and you can even use your phone overseas to call U.S. numbers (via Wi-Fi). At first glance this may seem like a great deal—but it may not right be for all or even most users.

Currently, the company is accepting pre-orders and says devices will ship within four weeks. More will become clear when the service actually launches—and we do plan to try out Republic Wireless. Meanwhile, here are the questions I have about this new service.

How seamlessly will calls switch between Wi-Fi and the cellular network? One way that Republic will keep prices low is to use what it calls “hybrid calling”: This combines traditional CDMA cellular service with Wi-Fi and switches automatically between the two.

The company says subscribers won’t have to do anything except keep their Wi-Fi passwords saved on the phone. And Republic claims that transitions between Wi-Fi and cellular will be seamless, even for voice calls. I’ll be eager to put those claims to the test when the service launches.

How quickly will a range of phones be available? Republic will not allow you to bring your own device to its service—and for now, only one phone will be available, the Motorola Defy XT. Republic claims that more phones are on their way, but it did not specify models, or when they will be available.

We haven’t yet tested the Defy XT, but its specs are not particularly impressive. The phone uses the rather dated Gingerbread version of the Android operating system (version 2.3), and it supports only 3G data speeds when using a cellular connection, instead of faster 4G. And the service will not support tethering (sharing your phone’s Web connection with another device).

What is the real cost of the service? Although $19 a month for unlimited service sounds very appealing, consider that you are required to purchase the phone for $249 and pay a $10 activation fee. This puts the cost for the first year at $487, which comes out to just over $40 a month. Of course, if you stick with the phone and the plan, the monthly cost goes down over time—it’s $715, or just under $30 a month if you keep the phone for two years.

What’s the bottom line? Republic Wireless’s service might prove to be a viable option for those that have been on the fence about getting a smart phone because of the price of the plan. If you are a heavy data user who needs a fast connection everywhere you use the phone, or you want a particular phone to use, then you’ll want to consider other options.

If you’re looking for a new wireless carrier now, make sure to check out our newest Ratings of cell phone carriers.

—David Toner

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