A Year With the Cheapest Unlimited Phone Plan You've Never Heard Of

Remember Republic Wireless? Those guys who promised to change the world of mobile with a $19 per month unlimited talk, text, and data plan? Remember how it sounded too good to be true? I dove in head first when it came out as a beta last year, and I can tell you from experience that it both is and isn't. Republic is onto something, yes. But it's getting there slowly.

How it works

The linchpin of Republic Wireless's whole operation is Wi-Fi. Free, delicious Wi-Fi. Instead of using data and cell service all the time, Republic does everything in its power to route you through an open Wi-Fi network at any and all times. And the key to achieving that goal is your Republic Wireless phone. Or rather the Republic Wireless phone; there is only one to choose from. On the Republic Wireless phone is a special flavor of Android 2.3 Gingerbread (bleh), a custom ROM. This ROM—mostly run-of-the-mill Android—has one special feature: it'll automatically use Wi-Fi networks it knows. For everything it can. And it does it pretty seamlessly.

Chillin' in your living room? Hanging out in your favorite coffee shop? At work? If you're connected to a trusted Wi-Fi network, all the calls you make or get are instantly VoIP. Switching over to Wi-Fi can be annoying when you have to dig into menus and flip a switch, but when it's automatic—as it is here—you hardly even notice. You don't have to toggle a thing. No Wi-Fi in sight? Data/cell it is then. Likewise, VoIPing comes naturally when you don't have to boot up a special app, or use a different number. The only problem is that you can't switch over to data mid-call (or vice versa); there's no Wi-Fi/cell hand-off. Leaving Wi-Fi during a Wi-Fi call will get that call dropped.

A Year With the Cheapest Unlimited Phone Plan You've Never Heard Of

Sounds great? It is, except for all that parts that aren't. For Republic to be at all effective, you have to collect a whole bunch of Wi-Fi networks and their paswords. To that end, Republic Wireless also has a handy little app that makes it a piece of cake to add new, open networks to your stash. There's a little icon right in your notification pull-down and in two seconds, you can be connected to the nearest open network and VoIPing your little heart out. That makes one of Republic's primary annoyances significantly less annoying.

It's also not totally clear how unlimited Repulic's unlimited plan really is. Early on, the plan explicitly intended to boot data hogs, but Republic dropped that aspect early on (due to laws against revoking utilities like phone service for any reason except non-payment, I think? Maybe? Doesn't matter). Instead, it went full "unlimited," though there's a looming, unspoken footnote along the lines of "but be careful because otherwise this whole thing is going to go under. People will lose their jobs, man. And it'll be all on you and your streaming Internet radio, asshole." So it's unlimited, with a heaping helping of guilt trip.

The Experience

Update: Republic Wireless now has a really kickass phone on its network, and can do the dynamic hand-off stuff I whine about!

When I first got onto Republic, the world was wide open and full of potential. Not exactly flush with cash at the time, I was thrilled to be getting a smartphone—any smartphone—at just $19 a month, and that was enough to bathe the whole experience in a positive light. I'd come from a world of using an iPod Touch as an mp3 player, so the concept of being tethered to Wi-Fi was second nature to me. Doing the same with a phone wasn't a big deal; I was just getting a bonus 3G (no LTE here, what do you think this is, Verizon?) safety net, compliments of a deal Republic has cut with Sprint. Sure, it came with some inconveniences, like being unable to leave my home or office during a phone call for fear of losing Wi-Fi and having the call dropped, but the plan was so cheap it seemed worth it.

The original Republic Wireless phone was a Sprint Optimus S. Take a glance at the specs and you'll see it's no shining star, but it's a hearty little sucker. It also helped that Republic's original ROM was mighty close to stock, so it rode light, even on the less-than-stellar hardware. It was hardly a powerhouse, but scrolling was smooth and it didn't feel janky. I liked it well enough for what it was. Still do. It got the job done.

Sailing continued to be smooth for the first five or six months. Porting my old number to Republic proved to be hassle because of the company's Republic's lack of a traditional help line and a few beta bugs, so for a while there I was juggling two numbers while simultaneously waiting for my old Verizon contract to run out and trading emails with (very prompt) Republic support. I don't have to keep in close touch with that many people via phone, so it was a manageable hassle, sufficiently solved with Google Voice and some "call me at this number" emails. But around month five this started to get seriously old.

Once I got my real number back, I found the gadget envy beginning to set in. The Optimus was still working—and working well—but it wasn't something I felt great about. It became "my phone that's cheap and not new but it still works so I guess we're all good." Fortunately, a few months ago Republic began to roll out newer hardware, the Motorola Defy XT. No spring chicken, but a step up hardware-wise. Thanks to a mix-up where Republic had to get rid of some single-band models (i.e. models that don't roam as well) it had accidentally received, I got to upgrade for free. A new, better phone. A new, better experience, right? Not so much.

Instead of being a stop-gap against my growing gadget lust, the Defy XT turned out to be more of a wet blanket. The nearly stock ROM that'd run so light on the Optimus was replaced with a bloatware-laden sucker on the XT, and performance suffered, even on the better hardware. There was jank to the scrolling, and unwanted apps. And, because Republic relies on that ROM, there was no flashing a better one. Even rooting to remove the bloat would cock-up future OTA updates.

And those are my reservations against a phone I got for free. New users will have to pay $250 up front for the Defy XT, or—in a new plan announced yesterday—$100 for the phone paired with a $29 monthly data plan. Not insane prices for hardware these days, but enough to make those monthly savings a little less appealing. Especially given the quality of the phone in question.

This steep, unexpected deterioration in general doin'-stuff-on-my-phone quality suddenly put a whole bunch of salt in wounds that were previously nicks and scratches. When the on-screen keyboard starts lagging out as you're typing a tweet, the things you shrugged off before, like spotty Sprint coverage or the lack of a Wi-Fi cell hand-off, become damn near unbearable.

By the time I discovered that T-Mobile had a $30-a-month plan that included unlimited data (5GB at "4G speeds") but only 100 voice minutes per month (a problem I could also solve by VOIPing), I was intrigued by the idea of using what I had come to think of as "a real phone." It was over before I even knew I'd decided to switch. Sometimes I still shoot the occassional grimace at that Defy XT sitting powered off in the corner.

Well then, is it worth checking out?

Do you already have a smartphone? If so, then no. If you have a smartphone of any kind, chances are you're already spoiled for Republic Wireless. The weird eccentricity of Republic is going to clash with your expectations, and the inconvenience of that is almost definitely going to out-weigh the savings.

A Year With the Cheapest Unlimited Phone Plan You've Never Heard Of

Do you make super important voice-calls from your cell on a regular basis? Again, Republic isn't for you. Sometimes you'll get a call while you're connected to an weak but open network, and then you're in trouble. Or you pick up a Wi-Fi call at home and now you can't leave the house until you're done. It can be a bitch.

Are you hard-up for cash, smartphone-less, and really want to be able to check your email, look at Twitter, use Google Maps, etc? In other words, are you late to the smartphone party? If you read Gizmodo, probably not, but if you are, then Republic is worth a shot. Republic is one of the cheapest ways into the smartphone game. If it's not for you, it might be a good deal for Mom, or Grandpa. Or junior. And Republic has a 30-day risk-free trial period, so it can't hurt to give it a shot.

But it's beta!

Republic really is on to something here, and as long as six-strikes anti-piracy policies don't kill open Wi-Fi out-right, it'll only get better with time. Ideally, Republic will be/have an app someday. And some kind of Wi-Fi switching app (with hand-offs) would make a wonderful combo paired with something like the T-Mobile plan I have now. If the crap phone was out of the equation, Republic would be a way better bet. And according to some vague Twittering, that might soon be the case:

But even if Republic Wireless wasn't distilled down to an app, none of its problems are inherent. All it really needs to be easily twice as good is Wi-Fi/cell hand-offs and (the option to bring) a better phone. And if they can manage to pull that off, I'll definitely consider coming back to the fold.

Update: Republic Wireless has made some pretty huge changes that are worth checking out. I haven't gone back quite yet, but damned if I'm not thinking about it.