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Is bargain-basement Republic Wireless phone service worth the cost?

Consumer Reports News: February 11, 2013 01:08 PM

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Republic this week offered an additional pricing option: to buy its Motorola Defy XT phone for $99 rather than $249, and to pay $29 a month for service rather than $19. All other terms of service seem to remain the same—including the lack of any contractual obligation.

The new option trades savings of about $150 in the cost of the phone for an overall cost of ownership that's about $90 higher over two years. But the plan would actually save you $30 were you to own the phone for only a year, perhaps before upgrading to a better one on another carrier. And you'd have to a pony up a lot less upfront to get started. [Updated 2/20/13.]

Republic Wireless is a relatively new no-contract cell service with a seemingly compelling offer for budget-conscious smart-phone users: unlimited calls, texts, and data for only $19 a month. Our review of this service found it delivers pretty much what you might expect at that price.

Republic Wireless service is so inexpensive because whenever possible it uses Wi-Fi. (Voice calls are handled via VoIP.) When there's no accessible Wi-Fi network, Republic uses the Sprint phone network.

Consumer Reports' telecom engineer David Toner recently took Republic Wireless for a spin around the New York City area using the only device that works with the service: the decent but basic Motorola Defy XT smart phone ($249). During his review, the service and phone functioned acceptably on smaller, less-crowded Wi-Fi networks but were less reliable in larger, more-congested Wi-Fi networks supporting many devices. In fact, Wi-Fi network access—a key selling point for using this service—proved to be anything but seamless.

The service:

Hand-off hassles. Chances are, you'll make most calls on this phone either entirely on Wi-Fi, because you're at home, or entirely on the cellular network, because you aren't. That's just as well, since moving from one mode to the other is a headache.

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.

Additionally, the phone did not do a very good job of recognizing when the Wi-Fi signal was becoming too weak to maintain the call, resulting in dropped calls or poor performance. David had better luck manually forcing the phone to switch from Wi-Fi to cellular.

If you know ahead of time that you're going to travel during a call, you can avoid this problem altogether by beginning your call on the Sprint network and staying there by turning off the phone's Wi-Fi connection. But that puts you at risk for an even bigger hassle (see next item).

Republic could dump you. The service closely tracks your cellular and Wi-Fi usage and reserves the right to cut you off if you spend too much time on the Sprint network. The company won't acknowledge what that cut-off point is but says it's yet to "fire a customer" for overuse of the phone network. Most customers, according to Republic, spend 60 percent or more of their time on Wi-Fi. In any case, if you're worried about your use of the respective networks, you can easily monitor it on the phone or a computer.

The phone:

A basic smart phone. The Motorola Defy XT is a competent but not particularly impressive phone. It runs the somewhat dated Android Gingerbread (2.3.7) OS and supports only 3G networks, not Sprint's faster 4G one. The phone's 3.7-inch LCD display, with a resolution of 480 x 854 pixels, is fairly sharp if not a tad small by today's standards. Overall, the 4.6-ounce phone is small but chunky, measuring 4.53 x 2.30 x 0.47 inches.

The specs indicate that the display is protected by Gorilla Glass and the phone case is dust-proof and water resistant. The battery door can be locked shut and is sealed with a gasket.

No multimedia messaging. The phone supports SMS but not MMS. This means you can send and receive text messages but not picture or video messages. To send media files, your best bet is e-mail; the phone also supports DLNA, which allows you to beam pics and videos to HDTVs that support this standard. The phone cannot make international calls, but you can use it in Wi-Fi networks overseas to make and receive calls to U.S. numbers.

A decent camera. The phone's main 5-megapixel camera was only fair overall in performance, though it did produce excellent 8x10 prints under optimal conditions. The Defy has a second front-facing camera with VGA resolution, so it's suited only to low-res self-portraits and crude video chats over Wi-Fi.

Okay voice quality. Voice quality on both cellular and Wi-Fi were adequate, though there were some issues with calls over Wi-Fi.

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.

[Edited 2/15/13]

For more details on phone service and smart phones, check our buying guide and Ratings.

—David Toner and Mike Gikas

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