The $19-Per-Month Smartphone Is Actually Getting Decent Reviews

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First introduced in 2011, Republic Wireless is a North Carolina-based service that promises a smartphone with unlimited Internet, voice, and texting for an absurdly inexpensive $19 per month. Most astounding of all: The phone seems to work.

The Los Angeles Times recently reported that prepaid cellphone plans like those offered by Republic Wireless rose a hefty 12% in the U.S. last year, for these main reasons:

The cost sometimes is less than half that of a traditional billed service; there’s no restrictive contract or hefty early-cancellation fee; and some high-end providers offer smartphones with unlimited Internet, text and roaming capabilities that weren’t available previously.

At $19 per month, Republic Wireless probably can’t be called a “high-end provider.” But it does offer unlimited data, voice, and texts, and customers aren’t locked into any long-term contracts. The key to the cheap rates is that Republic Wireless customer phone calls are placed via Wi-Fi rather than the usual cellphone network whenever Wi-Fi is available. If Wi-Fi isn’t an option, calls are placed through Sprint.

There are drawbacks to Republic Wireless. How could there not be? Customers have a grand total of one smartphone to choose from—the Motorola Defy XT—and the pricing system may turn some buyers off. It costs $249 upfront to get the $19 monthly rate. Alternately, a new promotion offers the Defy XT at $99, but with a $29 monthly rate. The Wi-Fi calling system is flawed too (see below for details).

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But when all the numbers are added up—initial costs plus monthly charges—Republic Wireless claims that a family of three can save $2,715 over the course of two years, compared to a standard ($64 per month, per phone) smartphone contract.

So what do reviewers have to say about Republic Wireless? Walt Mossberg, the highly influential Wall Street Journal columnist, wrote that the company is “using an unusual technology approach that’s smart and may even represent the future.” While neither the phone nor the service is the best out there, they’re more or less adequate, according to Mossberg:

In my tests, conducted in and around Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles and Silicon Valley, call quality was adequate, text service worked normally, and Web browsing and apps mostly worked OK, at my home, office and public Wi-Fi hot spots in airports and coffee shops.

Edward C. Baig, the tech columnist at USA Today used the word “functional” to describe the phone’s features, noting that he “was able to run several Android apps, including Angry Birds, Slacker, Quickoffice and YouTube, and fetch apps from the Google Play store.” Reviewers like Baig may not be particularly impressed with the phone or the service, but they seem to be very impressed with the price:

Republic Wireless isn’t suitable for every consumer, of course, especially those who want to employ the latest devices and fastest networks. But it’s awfully hard to quarrel with $19 a month.

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A Consumer Reports review, meanwhile, offered the following as its bottom line:

For many smart-phone users, Republic Wireless’ rock-bottom pricing will not be enough to offset its less-than-fast 3G connection to the cell network and the limited phone capabilities. The service might be an acceptable budget option for some people—perhaps college students with access to good Wi-Fi reception or penny-pinchers still carrying around a basic flip phone and are reluctant to pony up the higher monthly cost for a smart phone from a conventional carrier.

None of these come close to qualifying as rave reviews. All of the reviews highlight downsides to Republic Wireless and the phones that can be used with the service. They all bash the “hand-off hassle,” as CR described it:

If you initiate a call on a Wi-Fi network and then move out of that network’s range, the phone handles the transition by automatically placing a second call over Sprint’s cellular network. But the hand-off was not seamless. The person at the other end of the call must hit the flash button to maintain the conversation or he’ll lose the call.

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They all point out that the Defy XT itself is hardly cutting edge, and that it runs on an older, slower Android operating system. Mossberg calls the XT “a chunky device with a lower-resolution screen than any current iPhone or leading Android mode.”

But again, we’re talking $19 per month. At that price, it would be crazy to expect quality on par with the newest smartphones, whose owners probably pay four times as much monthly. If there weren’t downsides to Republic Wireless, then Apple, AT&T, and the other big players in wireless would be in serious trouble right now. Instead, it looks like they’ll be in trouble in the not-so-distant future, when Republic Wireless and other cut-rate providers offer a better selection of handsets and smoother service—at prices that are much cheaper than the industry standard.

23 comments
TömVernie
TömVernie

I have been with Sprint for many years and was reluctant to switch since I was getting a 25% discount through my work, but I was tired of their poor customer service and barely use any of the data that's on my plan (got really annoying when I was forced to pay an additional 10 bucks) when I'm still using my old Blackberry 8300. I never had any complaints with the service though. rarely drop calls and reception wherever you would expect it. With that said, at work I have zero reception.

However I do have wifi at work of course and with almost all my calls are being done at home or at work Republic Wireless works out great for me. When I'm outside a wifi hotspot, the old sprint network or verizon kicks in and I have even better coverage than before. Many say the phone is "old" technology, but that's all about perspective. I mentioned my old bberry, so I feel the Defy XT is a huge upgrade for me. If you use my referral link, we will both save a $19 when you sign up. My link is: http://referrals.republicwireless.com/a/clk/17rWzy

SusanClodfelter
SusanClodfelter

Was paying around $70/mo. for phone service from T-mobile. I have now been with WR for about 6 months now, and love the phone.  It is ruggedized, and has Gorilla glass on the touchscreen that doesn't scratch.  It is also waterproof to 3 feet, haven't tested that yet. Call quality over wifi is perfect at work and at home, not as good over the towers.  It runs all the apps I have tried from Google Play Store, and there are app suggestions on the WR blog site that will increase speed and battery use. VERY HAPPY, hubby is going to get one soon.    

MMK007
MMK007

I wanted a smartphone for my wife, but didn't want to spend too much for the monthly service.   After doing a week long research, I decided to try Republic Wireless. Received the unit a couple of days back.  I am impressed with the online order experience, and the e-mail notifications/confirmations received from them.


The unit arrived on time as promised.  Could setup and start using the phone in minutes.  So far no issues.  The call quality, and phone display are good.  Tested it outdoor, even with Mac'd WiFi.  Kids are always on it for the games. Able to make calls through WiFi as well as Sprint wireless.


I thought of reducing one star as they currently provide customer service only through e-mail, but for the monthly fee of $19/-, I believe, this is an awesome deal. As of now, I am satisfied.


Use the below link to get a discount of $19

http://referrals.republicwireless.com/a/clk/NFWHB

rebeli
rebeli

I have been a Republic Wireless member for almost four months.  Let me tell you... I am THRILLED.  First of all, I am saving around $65/month over my previous monthly bill with TMobile.  (My partner is saving $100/month over Verizon).  Second, the phone is decent enough (I had the Samsung Galaxy S-2 previously).  Other than the camera, it's great.  And much more durable than most other phones (e.g. mostly waterproof).  Besides, new ones will be introduced this summer.  Third, I love the community forum.  I get my questions answered much more quickly than going through the customer service phone call at TM.  I know that some people have had some concerns about calling over wi-fi.  Given that I live along a portion of the central California coast with lousy cell service (on any company), visitors to my home with Verizon, Sprint, etc., get spotty service.  But I now have good reception all the time. 

gre
gre

I love this phone. I tried it out and immediately switched to it. The call quality was excellent even over my very slow home DSL connection. The amount I paid for my phone ($249) will easily be saved after 4 months of use.

Ken2010
Ken2010

Republic Wireless has a 30 day money back guarantee.  You've got nothing to lose except the $19 fee.  I've been using their service since December 10th and have no complaints.  I have found their blogs and discussions to be honest and open with quick response time from other users who want this endeavor to succeed.  From the few comments I've read so far it appears to me some simply want this company to fail for whatever reason.  I say if you want a neat opportunity to see if this meets your needs spend the $19.  I'm very happy that I have.

jo66kg
jo66kg

I was a customer of Republic Wireless, and let me tell you it is not worth it, trust me! Dealing with this company was beyond frustrating, and problematic. I had heard about Republic quite awhile ago actually, and I had been awaiting the day for them to get going for quite some time. However, I had nothing but problems.... big problems! At least 80% of my calls, both over WiFi and Sprint's old network, were either dropped, or so bad (usually a bad echo) I had to try and call the person back. Usually I would have to try several times before I just gave up. The internet usually did not work, or was so slow it was basically unusable, and I tested this phone in 3 major metro areas; Minneapolis, Milwaukee and Chicago. Also, the phone was horrible, it wouldn't even recognize the memory card, so I couldn't download any apps, or upload any music, etc. And the customer service? Non-existent to downright horrible! Worst company I have ever dealt with. They ignored all of my requests to cancel my service (I put through at least 8 to 3 different channels) until I finally threatened to go to the BBB and hire a lawyer. After several weeks of this nonsense I was finally told I would receive a full refund within 10 days, however, it did not come for almost 90 days after me writing them several times and pressing them more about where my refund was. The list of problems goes on, but I only have so much space to write. So, please trust me. You do not want to use this company. I don't care if it was 100% free, it is not worth it!

TeekBLang
TeekBLang

If their voice and texting is reliable on 3g network, I'll sign up for 30 dollars/month. Heck I'm paying 70 US (w/o data plan on Iphone 3GS) for ATT poor 3g's network. Now they are demanding I should pay more to continue using my I-phone.

Lake2013
Lake2013

I have used the Republic Wireless service now for several months.  It's been a lifesaver, especially in my home office where the Wi-Fi network is much stronger than what the national carrier I previously used could offer consistently. Truthfully, I am in my home office under a Wi-Fi hotspot the majority of the day so seemless handover between Wi-Fi and cellular is of little interest. 

I also use the Phonebooth product from the same company for landline VoIP service - when I say their Customer Service team has bent over backwards to help with getting my set service set up. I get phone calls from their Customer Service anytime I register a trouble ticket.

slyostinato
slyostinato

Decent reviews?? I can appreciate your positivity, but have you been to their public forums for any length of time? A lot of unhappy customers over there. Have you seen their dismal rating and reviews on Yelp? I think the Mossberg and Consumer Reports reviews pretty much nailed it when they described it as..."mediocre, expensive, clunky, and 'not even rock-bottom pricing will be enough'" RW is a company that tries to rewrite its history every few months in an attempt to cover up the bad press that unsatisfied customers are giving them. They try to portray themselves as a cash-poor company and they try to use that as an excuse not to offer any customer service, beyond a crowd-controlled forums site. This company brought in $100 million in 2011 and $120 in 2012, not to mention a large $20 million private investment. They can clearly afford to hire a few live customer service reps to answer people's questions via a phone call. No, this is a company trying to pull a fast one by charging people $19/month to use THEIR OWN internet connection to make wifi calls. Anyway, there are literally tons of dissatisfied customers posting at their forums. Spend just a week reading them and a totally different picture emerges as to how this company does business. Anyway, if you're frustrated and need to reach someone at RW, just call them (despite the rhetoric that RW asks its free workers - ambassadors - to canvas their forums with by trying to convince customers that there is no way to reach an RW employee beyond posting a comment on their forums)

919-297-1100 - Jim Mulcahy, manager of RW
919-297-1010 - David Morken, CEO
919-439-7335 - Sean Rivers, director of customer service/admin of forums
919-297-1040 - Joe Merrill

919-297-1100 - automated company directory. Dial by last name to reach somebody.

Amie Ashworth, customer experience manager
Ben Armstrong, product manager
Tim Jones, cell phone product specialist
Sarah Davis, admin of forums
Brent Pentecost, admin of forums
Doc Shufelt, operations
Jon Schniepp, engineering
Jessica (Orr) Janes, marketing

sharonzeke
sharonzeke

Also use "ADDALINE50" as promo code when buying 2 phone! Thanks :)

slyostinato
slyostinato

@jo66kg - I'm sorry to hear about your horrendous experience with RW. It sounds very similar to mine. As a way to help save other unsuspecting customers from this Mickey Mouse-operated company, you should share your experiences at the Yelp and Howard Forums websites. At least you have the assurance of knowing that RW can't censor your post there because it is not favorable, something they do often on their own forums.

truthteller75
truthteller75

@slyostinato - I can completely respect you for outing them but check again...they are a company that digs and shovels dirt over anything dismal. I don't put much past them. They will do whatever it takes b/c it's all about the $$$. They have been working hard to change their image outwardly on all forums - I would bet good money imposters are planting 5 stars to cover up anything bad - BUT one can only hope it's a true positive change taking place in all faucets of the business.

RJWagner
RJWagner

@slyostinato 19 bucks is to use your own internet or roam onto sprints. You can turn off wifi and use sprint all day long if you want.

truthteller75
truthteller75

@slyostinato @jo66kg - they would completely do that. Any negative feedback is not wanted by a small hungry company such as them - It's mostly a bunch of kids working there. They are not the most ethical in the least. I completely believe your experience. 

truthteller75
truthteller75

@RJWagner  - but if you use too much of sprint, you get cancelled right? I do know there's a cut off point - using it all day long defeats the purpose of making any money off this.  Otherwise what is the point? The selling point is that they want you to use WiFi where it's available and as little of the actual sprint mobile as possible or they lose money. They make money when you use wifi and the software is engineered to be savvy enough to detect it when it's available...it's not certainly not seamless when it comes to transitioning though...alas a work in progress with limited phones. AND if there is no wifi or sprint service (dead spots) you are SOL like with any other phone. So no, you can NOT use it all day long and expect to not pay the price :)