Hands-On Review of the Republic Wireless $19 ‘Unlimited’ Cell Phone Plan

Hands-On Review of the Republic Wireless $19 'Unlimited' Cell Phone Plan

Back in early November I wrote about Republic Wireless, a company offering a compelling $19 a month unlimited plan with no contract. I ordered a phone the same day, and it arrived late in December. Let’s take a quick look at what they have to offer!

The Hype:
Newsflash: anything a cell network can do, the Internet can do better and cheaper.
So we think a truly smart smartphone should make a habit of using Wi-Fi for everything. Surfing. Texting. Sharing. And, yes, even talking.

There isn’t an app for this.
And you definitely shouldn’t have to download any special apps to get on the web instead of a cellular network. It should be automatic, built-in. You just use your phone.

Hybrid Calling™ is just like a hybrid car, only traditional carriers are the oil companies.
And if there isn’t any Wi-Fi around? No problem, your republic smartphone just switches itself over to cellular.

The Reality:
While the promise of Republic Wireless focusing on a low-cost unlimited Android smartphone experience seems enticing, it is worth noting that Republic remains intertwined with all of the normal issues facing mobile phone users. There are three critical aspects of a cell phone – the hardware, user experience (OS, UI and software) and the network.

The Hardware:
There is one phone provided by Republic Wireless, which is a LG Optimus S. This is a Sprint phone from 2010, and it is quite honestly the worst Android smartphone I have ever used. The bottom line problem is the touchscreen. It is laggy and unresponsive and sometimes seems more like an old resistive screen than a capacitive multi-touch!

Yet reviews I have seen are fairly positive on the Optimus – I mean, I am also reviewing the Samsung Repp and HTC Wildfire, both ‘free on contract’ phones, and neither of which has the screen issues I have seen. But looking at some user forum comments from the past tells me I don’t have a defective phone.

In fact, I actually got a second phone since I started writing this – my initial idea was to replace the $9.99/month (plus enough fees that it ended at $16.50) we were paying for ‘dumb’ phones for each of our kids with ‘unlimited’ phone, texting and data with Republic Wireless. That plan changed after spending time with the phone and particularly the service.

Although the LG isn’t meant to be a high-end camera replacement, I was interested to see how it would do compared to my Droid Pro. That phone was released in late 2010 along with the Droid 2, and honestly I have always thought it took mediocre images. But the quick comparison shows that the LG shots make the Droid look like a Pro Camera! Here is one comparison – LG first, Droid second … and there are more in the gallery at the end.

Hands-On Review of the Republic Wireless $19 'Unlimited' Cell Phone Plan

Hands-On Review of the Republic Wireless $19 'Unlimited' Cell Phone Plan

The Network:

If you look at the image above you see that the phone was essentially dead, and charging at 1% at 5:42AM. I had just plugged it in, after coming home at 5PM after it charged to full on my desk at work. I have full WiFi signal at home, but sketchy Sprint signal. The bottom line is that well before 12 hours of standby with NO use the phone was dead.

My point? Republic Wireless is vocal and highly insistent about the WiFi connection, and yet even when WiFi is full-on, the 3G antenna sucks down your power looking to maintain a connection.

I thought the whole point was to ‘be a WiFi’? I AM a WiFi, and therefore this phone should be perfect since 80% of my life is in my office or home, with great WiFi signal. But to reuse the Republic ‘hybrid’ analogy, this is like having a hybrid car that keeps burning gas even when you have a full battery.

Since I drive a hybrid vehicle, I will continue the analogy. I love how my car will seamlessly switch between gas and electric modes based on what is needed, and will even use the electric power to help boost the gas mileage and charge the battery when in gas mode. It is a symbiotic relationship.

As I said, our Sprint coverage throughout the entire region I live in is awful. That means that I really rely on WiFi for any sort of network performance. Sadly the call quality over WiFi on the LG Optimus is tinny and crackly – this is on a 10MB cable network that wonderfully supports Skype video at high quality! It really didn’t matter where I was located, the quality was mediocre at best – even compared to an older ‘dumb phone’.

To make matters worse, I consistently got failures when transitioning between networks. So if I was out in the yard with my kids and went across the street while talking on the phone, the call would break up and drop. Similarly if I was driving and talking on my Bluetooth headset and pulled into my driveway, the WiFi would kick in and the call would drop. It is a terrible system that Republic needs to fix.

Hands-On Review of the Republic Wireless $19 'Unlimited' Cell Phone Plan

User Experience:

It seems that a crappy phone would give a crappy experience, but that isn’t what I am talking about. Nor am I talking about network connectivity or other network-specific issues. I am talking here about what it is like living and working with Republic Wireless.

Republic Wireless is a small company that is attempting to change thing up by offering a contract-free smartphone with a full Android experience and low monthly rates. To do this they have integrated text and calling software that works over both WiFi and normal cellular networks.

Republic Wireless recently completely changed up their business model by declaring themselves ‘truly unlimited’. This is a pretty huge change.

Initially, Republic was based on the idea that most of us spend a large part of our time in WiFi covered areas, so they structure their add-on software to utilize WiFi as much as possible. In fact, they have a ‘ratio’ that looks at your network usage compared to WiFi usage and would rate you – they only wanted certain usage profiles hitting their network to avoid over-utilizing Sprint’s network … and said that they would ‘ask you to look elsewhere’ if you were a consistent ‘too much 3G’ user. Now they STILL push the WiFi connections, but won’t boot you if you don’t meet their usage profiles.

The upside as a user is that you simply set your WiFi networks, and then don’t worry about your usage. You simply get a full Android experience for $19 a month.


Let me be blunt – there is no way I can recommend Republic Wireless. It is a seemingly great idea that is dreadful in execution.

The phone they chose is awful – it has a terrible touchscreen and is generally one of the worst phones I have ever used. I routinely got ~3-4 hours of battery life – which didn’t depend much on whether I used the phone at all! The 3G ‘hunting’ killed me all the time.

The Republic Wireless system is entirely dependant on the Sprint Network to an extent that really makes no sense. If a system wants you to ‘be a WiFi’, then in strong WiFi areas it shouldnt even worry about the 3G antenna. But it does, meaning that in poor signal areas you will get atrocious battery life.

And curiously, for a system that touts WiFi/3G interoperability, I never got it to work. Switching networks meant losing calls. And regardless of which network I was on the call quality was amongst the worst I have had on any cell phone of the digital era.

One of the first things that draws people in is the price – $19 a month. As some pointed out, T-Mobile and other carriers offer budget no-contract plans that rival this … and allow you to bring your own phone or buy one of their older smartphones for a reasonable price – most less than the $200 you pay for Republic’s LG phone. In the end, the seeming low price isn’t such a bargain after all.

Review: Republic Wireless

Where to Buy: Republic Wireless

Price: $199 plus $19/month

What I Like: Low monthly cost; unlimited talk, text and data; calls and text over WiFi as well as 3G

What Needs Improvement: Dreadful phone; dependence on 3G kills battery; lousy call quality; inability to jump between 3G and WiFi during calls.

Source: Personal Purchase

About the Author

Michael Anderson
I have loved technology for as long as I can remember - and have been a computer gamer since the PDP-10! Mobile Technology has played a major role in my life - I have used an electronic companion since the HP95LX more than 20 years ago, and have been a 'Laptop First' person since my Compaq LTE Lite 3/20 and Powerbook 170 back in 1991! As an avid gamer and gadget-junkie I was constantly asked for my opinions on new technology, which led to writing small blurbs ... and eventually becoming a reviewer many years ago. My family is my biggest priority in life, and they alternate between loving and tolerating my gaming and gadget hobbies ... but ultimately benefits from the addition of technology to our lives!
  • loopyduck

    It’s stuff like this that makes me miss T-Mobile’s UMA service, and one of the few reasons I miss my BlackBerry Curve 8320. It was quite gratifying to be able to place a crystal clear call from Taiwan to the States over WiFi and having minutes deducted from the bucket just like normal. The Android “WiFi Calling” is nowhere near as good, and it doesn’t hand off to T-Mobile’s cell network. Which brings me to my point.

    Looking at Republic Wireless’s web page, I see nothing that explicitly says that phone calls will transition from WiFi to cellular or vice-versa. The “Hybrid” analogy they use only seems to indicate that it will be on WiFi when possible and cellular otherwise; this is to explain the “catch” for the $19/month service. Remember, they used to require that one use WiFi a certain amount, with the cellular network acting as a backup. In fact, I could have sworn that at one point there was a page somewhere that specifically said that calls would not be handed off. However, after the rewrite (to the “truly unlimited”) that part seems to have gone missing.

    While the Optimus S isn’t a superphone by any means, my mediocre but passable experiences with that phone on Virgin Mobile leads me to believe that at least part of your problematic experience can be attributed to the custom ROM they’re using, which is CyanogenMod… but then further hacked to make the VoIP-copper gateway “seamless”. I suspect your issue with the cell radio still searching for Sprint is a bug with this custom ROM.

    Something important: nowhere in your review do you state the fact that the service is in still in beta. That fact is indicated in multiple places in their site. In fact, you can even see the beta tag in the first pic you posted. Not like Gmail-still-had-the-beta-tag-five-years-later-out-of-inertia beta but a true Beta with a capital ‘B’. How beta is it? It’s so beta that Republic doesn’t know if it can make any money after the “Truly Unlimited” thing kicked in. The phone software is beta, the service is beta, everything is pretty much in flux except for the price. And even if the service were fantastic, you still wouldn’t be able to recommend the service to anyone because the beta is currently closed, and the calling plan is liable to end at anytime.

    It’s a pity, though. I think they were on to something. What they really should have done is sold it like such: “Earn unlimited talk and web! For every X minutes/megabytes you use on WiFi, you get Y additional minutes/megabytes on the cell network FREE.” None of this “offloading” and “Cellular Usage Index” talk, which ultimately ended up derailing the whole thing.

    -Steven L

  • I am a full paying customer – they can call it ‘beta’, but it is a commercial product.  Beta is a BS excuse … once you are paying, beta is done.

    As for the phone, no – the hardware is THE WORST I have used.  And that includes 2 HTC, 3 Samsung, and 4 Moto Android phones …

    The touch screen is worse than … well, any one I can remember in more than 17 years of using touch screen devices.  And since I had TWO I know it was the actual design, not the specific phone.

    • I agree with Mike; if you are paying for it, it’s not beta, Beta or even ß. There’s no excuse for such a poor paid-for product. =P

      • loopyduck

        I get Mike’s point — calling something beta doesn’t automatically give it a pass — but I just find it strange that it was never mentioned. As per my reply to Mike, there have been plenty of hardware, software, and paid services that have been offered for public consumption. The tag should serve as a caveat emptor!

    • loopyduck

      I’m just not seeing it. A beta period is for squashing bugs, Google notwithstanding. Paid betas are nothing new; you may have heard of a little game called Minecraft (technically that was a paid alpha!). Hardware is sold as beta all the time, though they’re euphemistically referred to as developer devices or kits (see: MetaWatch et al., Nokia N900, Raspberry Pi). And for the record, Google Apps was also a paid beta service, and you can be sure that the service contracts made allowances for that fact! Calling something “beta” doesn’t suddenly make a poor experience 100% all right, but that you didn’t bother to mention it even *once* in passing seems… peculiar.

      I never said it was just one specific device that you were having problems with; I merely indicated that the problem might lie with Repulic’s custom ROM. A buggy Android distro would certainly cause it to lag and hang a lot, to the point where the touchscreen is unresponsive. Since the same software is used on all the devices, no amount of switching would help. It wasn’t clear whether you had the “opportunity” to use this phone with Sprint’s or Virgin Mobile’s ROMs.

      I see you didn’t say anything about the network handoffs; did you find the bit where they said that was possible? I can’t find the bit where they said it wouldn’t happen, but I do know that the tech they’re using isn’t wired to do so — they’d be in a world of hurt if they claimed otherwise.

      • I think we will have to agree to disagree on this beta thing.  Software I agree – I have done both paid and unpaid betas many times (and have some going right now).  Hardware, though is a whole different beast – there is a big difference between a ‘dev kit’ and a fully paid commercial service.

        As for device – Republic does (or at least DID, you are right that much has changed and made knowing things very difficult) require you to use THEIR phone.  You cannot bring your phone to their service.  At some point TBD they will bring a ‘handset 2.0’ to the service, but that is still THEIR phone.  So unfortunately Republic = LG Optimus.  If that wasn’t the case it would have been a very different thing – including my assessment of the ‘beta’ status.

        As for Hybrid Calling, I can’t find anything now saying the handoff works other than a rather generic “And if there isn’t any Wi-Fi around? No problem, your republic smartphone just switches itself over to cellular.”, but here is a coming milestone: “you’ll notice a super smooth transition between Wi-Fi and cellular as you move about while using Hybrid Calling.”

        • loopyduck

          Fair enough. And like I said, you’re absolutely right that being beta doesn’t excuse a horrible service. As for the phone, I guess I wasn’t really clear on what I meant: the Optimus S on Sprint and Virgin Mobile is a passable starter smartphone. I fully admit Republic’s version might be really screwy. I just didn’t want folks to think that the S is a complete piece of junk if they were considering it on a different carrier.

          I guess that milestone thing clinches it though: no hand-offs.

          …I really miss UMA =/

  • Francis Scardino

    Great in theory, sounds horrible in reality. The fact that the hardware utterly sucked for every reason is enough for me not to even consider it. The WiFi experience is the icing on the cake. If you are banking on WiFi to the be backbone of your network, but the call quality sucks…then you can pack up your bags and move along anytime. Im sure this article alone can save readers the time and aggravation of even attempting to go with Republic. 

    • The really sad thing is that I was *sold* – I bought 2 devices, had full plans to put my kids on them and all of that.  But it was just so awful … 

      And as I do mention, perhaps if you are in a Sprint-heavy area your experience with the network side would be better.  But without a decent phone … no thanks!

    • loopyduck

      What’ll save them even more time is that it’s currently a closed beta. Even if Mike were raving about the service, you still wouldn’t be able to try it out.

  • sly ostinato

    I’ll have to agree with some of my fellow posters. RW sucks!! I was excited to try them out and was lucky to get in on their opening day, but after 6 months of their BS, I had enough! I cancelled back in April, and it looks like it was the right thing to do as they have pushed back their promised updates even further now (my neighbor still has RW and he complains weekly about their antics). One of the worst things was…no customer service. All they kept telling people to do was read their forums for answers or read FB (I don’t have FB and don’t use it) or read Twitter (same as FB). If you had a question, they didn’t want to speak with you one-on-one during a live phone call (which I found hilariously ironic since they are a phone company and their whole premise for existing is so that people can TALK on a phone). All they kept telling you to do was email, over and over again. Alot of people are complaining that RW doesn’t respond promptly to emails. I can attest to that fact as they told me on several ocassions that they didn’t get my emails, yet I had proof that they were sent. Eventually, I got sick of all the emailing and found people posting phone numbers to reach them. I much prefer calling to get a problem solved in a few minutes as opposed to days of waiting for an email response. At least that made sense to me since they are a PHONE COMPANY. Anyway, my recommendation to anyone being sucked into unlimited service for $19/month, much like I was, WATCH OUT! They call this a beta, and I have prior experience with beta testing; this is no where near ready for beta testing. Usually with beta testing, they have 85-90% of the bugs worked out. They do not!!! This is more like alpha testing – and they are charging people for it! If you are a RW’er and are sick of their lies and stories, and especially them not wanting to talk to people via a phone call (they hide any and all numbers so people can’t find them – their 80# is a joke as it just tells you to go to their website), here are the numbers to reach somebody.

    Republic Wireless phone numbers:

    919-297-1079 – Brian Dally, manager
    919-297-1010 – David Morken, CEO
    – this is an automated company directory. Dial by last name.

    919-297-1037 – Adam Oakley, order fulfilment specialist

    Tim Jones, cell phone product specialist
    Jessica Orr, marketing/community specialist
    Sandra Perez, sr. manager of customer care team

  • Da’Man

    Stay away, far away. There is no service Department. e-Mails don’t address the question asked. A phone company with no telephone to call. That says it ALL