Republic Wireless made headlines when it began offering a $20/month unlimited plan on the LG Optimus smartphone starting in late 2011. Using the Sprint network, RW’s business model is to offload as much traffic to Wi-Fi as possible, using cellular only when necessary. The service has suffered a number of setbacks since, first with the outdated LG Optimus phone, then suffering backlash over the definition of "unlimited,"
and then releasing the first version of the new phone, the Motorola Deft XT, with a serious hardware bug.
After taking pre-orders for the "dual-band" Defy throughout 2012, Republic began shipping the phones in time for the holiday season. The service is now in "open beta;" anyone can now sign up
and receive a phone within two weeks.
Overall, the service does not disappoint. While Republic's technology offerings are not cutting edge, the Android phone is fast, has a wide array of features, a good battery life, and the backing of a solid network carrier. Some glitches have yet to be worked out, but the service is ready for primetime. And Republic's 30-day trial period means you can test drive it for yourself with no risk.
Republic Wireless' $250 Motorola Deft XT runs Android Gingerbread (2.3) on a 1 GHz and 512 MB RAM. The phone comes with a 2 GB MicroSD card, which can be upgraded up to 32 GB. The phone has a 5 MP, rear-facing camera (as well as a front-facing camera), GPS and Bluetooth, and a battery that RW claims will last up to 9.5 hours on continuous use. I've never run out of battery, even with data enabled an entire day.
Perhaps the phone’s most distinguishing feature is its ruggedness. The phone is NEMA-rated as dust-proof and water resistant; a quick Google search yields a number of videos showing the phone being submerged in water without any ill effects.
The phone largely lives up to the hype. Admittedly, I’m not a hard-core techie who requires bleeding-edge technology, but I’ve been very happy with the phone. It feels solid in your hand and is not too thin or thick, slippery or grippy, heavy or light. Even with an added case, the phone fits well into your pocket but doesn’t seem fragile or crushable either. The 3.7-inch touchscreen is responsive, and the "tactile feedback" (brief vibration on each input touch) is a great feature (although my girlfriend hates it). The four capacitive -touch buttons work great.
Coming from a dumb phone (not even a feature phone), Android 2.3 is amazing. When multiple apps are running there can sometimes be a slight delay switching between home screens or opening processor-intensive apps, but certainly nothing damning. The phone's internal memory (512 MB) is a little disappointing, but by moving some apps to the SD card the phone can handle a good deal.
Republic Wireless say they’re aiming to upgrade the phone and its systems in the future, but haven’t given out a specific timeline for this. The distro is slightly customized to use WiFi preferentially so you can’t upgrade on your own. Rooting is possible but technically not allowed, and because you can’t bring your own phone to RW and because all phones have to be bought directly from them, bricking your phone means starting from scratch, $250 and all.
Sprint's 3G service (no 4G) is solid as well. In an urban area, coverage should be fine. I personally haven’t encountered any problems in either of the place I live (southeast Michigan and southeast Pennsylvania), nor on a road trip I took through the northeast. International coverage isn't supported at this time, although you can make and receive calls on Wi-Fi from anywhere in the world. One great thing about Republic Wireless is that roaming is fully included in the unlimited coverage promise at no extra charge.
Sprint’s data service is solid and quick. Download speeds have varied greatly for me, but I seldom have to wait longer on my phone than I would have to on my computer. Syncing is near-instant and and e-mails arrive at essentially the same time as on my computer, especially on Wi-Fi.
The biggest challenge facing Republic Wireless is the handoff between Wi-Fi and cellular networks. Although cellular-to-Wi-Fi handoff is supported, users walking out of their house to the car will be disappointed to find calls drop. Republic says they’re working on this, although a solution does not seem to be near at hand. In the meantime, users will simply have to adapt and take solace in the fact that the Deft XT will automatically reconnect dropped calls.
A few features are still missing from RW’s service, namely MMS, SMS over WiFi (currently all go over cellular), and 911 dialing over Wi-Fi. The latter two will be fixed in RW's upcoming over-the-air update; RW says they have no plans to fix the MMS issue. Republic also has had little to say about future 4G support, although it’s unlikely this will happen any time soon, especially with the Defy XT.
Techies will be happy to hear that Republic Wireless fully supports all aspects of Google Voice, which I have also found to be true. Numbers can be ported in and out, excepting Google Voice numbers.
Requirements And Installation
"The Republic", as it’s colloquially known, is not for everyone. Easily the most attractive part of the plan is the $19/month (plus taxes and fees), no-contract plan, which is orders of magnitude cheaper than the nearest competitor. The relatively expensive phone ($250) and inability to bring your own phone cut into this savings somewhat, but for users upgrading from a dumb phone (such as myself) or looking to stick with the plan for a while, it’s a steal.
Overall, Republic Wireless provides a great phone and excellent service for a truly can’t-be-beat price.
Both the phone itself and the Sprint 3G network it runs on are fast, solid, and reliable, but admittedly not cutting edge. For users looking for the latest phone, fastest speeds, or biggest collection of apps: RW is probably not for you. But for entry- to mid-level smartphone users, Republic Wireless is a great deal.
Republic Wireless is still in beta mode, and customers should be aware that tech support is community-based or via e-mail, which means a great deal of self-support - probably not the best for your techno-phobe grandmother. There’s also always the risk that RW could go belly-up if their business plan doesn’t succeed, or that Sprint could be bought up by a larger competitor. There seems to be no immediate risk of either of these happening, however.
Overall, Republic Wireless provides a great phone and excellent service for a truly can’t-be-beat price. It’s not perfect and issues still exist, but the company has done a great job making the system easy to set up and use. For those interested in upgrading to a smartphone or cutting their bills, Republic Wireless is a great option.